The Berlioz Requiem, best-known for its vast scale and grand
ambitions, may not seem the obvious candidate for a ‘historically
informed’ performance, yet Sir Roger Norrington has done it
(Hänssler) and now it’s Paul McCreesh’s turn. McCreesh first
came to my attention in Michael Praetorius’s Lutheran Mass for
Christmas Morning – review
– a performance so full of joy and a sense of occasion; indeed,
it’s one of my most treasured CDs. In that same spirit of reconstruction
and authenticity, McCreesh has assembled forces not dissimilar
in size to those present at the Requiem’s premiere in 1837;
he has also opted for cornets à pistons and ophicleides in the
all-important brass bands.
At the heart of this performance are McCreesh’s Gabrieli forces
and the Wroclaw Philharmonic who, as John Quinn suggests in
seem to be playing modern instruments but in a historically
informed style. All of which sets this new recording apart from
the older, more conventional ones by the likes of Charles Munch,
Leonard Bernstein and Sir Colin Davis; I must declare an abiding
fondness for Davis Mark 1 on Philips – remastered with a multichannel
option by PentaTone – although his more recent Dresden account
for Profil is worth hearing too (review).
Given such preferences – some might call them prejudices – how
does this newcomer fare? First impressions are good. The opening
of the Requiem et Kyrie is floated most beautifully; and articulation
is crisp and clear, although I do miss Davis’s more supple rhythms
and general seamlessness. That said, the Polish choir is suitably
prayerful and nicely distant. There’s a palpable sense of occasion
here, of a great drama unfolding in this vast, votive space.
Those see-sawing supplications are simply marvellous. I do like
the sheer weight and glow of Davis’s performances, but McCreesh’s
lightness and lift is just as illuminating.
The Dies irae, with its battery of timps and brass bands, is
one of the greatest spectacles in music, a challenge to even
the most sophisticated audio systems. Philips was remarkably
successful at capturing these pate-cracking perorations back
in 1969, the wide groove spacing on the original LPs notable
in itself. But, as so often with Berlioz, it’s the quieter moments,
the ebb and flow, that really count; I’m pleased to report the
build-up to that first cataclysm is very well managed. As for
the sound, it’s impressive, although it does become a wash of
noise at times; certainly, these timps are nowhere near as muscular
or as well-defined as those for Davis. Also, dramatic tension
is lost – albeit fleetingly – and, with it, the brimstone scent
of dread and majesty that others conjure at this point.
It’s a brief lapse, the quiet chords at the close of the Dies
irae and the gentle opening of the Quid sum miser most beautifully
done. There’s a pleasing airiness to the sound aided, no doubt,
by the players’ leaner textures and abundance of detail. But,
and it’s a big but, I do sense the pulse is very weak, the choir
a little too reticent as well. No such qualms about the brass-laden
start to the Rex tremendae, or the incisive choral singing.
More troublesome is McCreesh’s tendency to rush here. Rhythmic
outlines and general shape are lost in the momentary free-for-all.
Davis, by contrast, has a much surer grasp of such shifts, and
of tempo relationships, which makes for a more coherent, propulsive
The Quaerens me has moments of transporting beauty – this is
a very fine choir, well drilled – the ear-catching interplay
of registers and timbres especially effective. As for the galumphing
tune at the heart of the Lacrymosa, it’s most powerfully projected,
but momentum flags too easily. It’s this fitful progress that
distracts me most, a pity given the many strengths and felicities
of McCreesh’s reading. Indeed, the Lacrymosa does improve, building
to a climax of martial weight and splendour, the likes of which
not even Davis can manage.
A strong sense of drama is built into Berlioz’s musical DNA,
and what are the Requiem and its ‘little brother’ the Te Deum,
if not pieces of theatre? There’s certainly a febrile intensity
to the Offertoire, which has all the boldness and brio one could
wish for. The radiant, cascading conclusion to this section
is another of the composer’s inspired touches. McCreesh and
his forces are here at their most tender and eloquent. The Hostias
is another such instance, those disembodied pedals launched
into the void like departing souls.
When I first heard an excerpt from Robert Murray’s Sanctus on
BBC Radio 3’s CD Review I felt at once that he was much too
far back. I still think so: his voice – secure, but strained
at the top – just too small and plaintive for my tastes. Indeed,
some may find the balances on this recording a little inconsistent,
with orchestral detail much more prominent than one might expect
in a work of this size played in a large space. Similarly, the
choir seems too far forward at times. Not a hanging offence,
of course, and the sense of atmosphere is still preserved.
In spite of those niggles the Sanctus ends well, with a panoply
of sound that’s simply thrilling; and, for once, McCreesh brings
real impetus to the proceedings. But it’s the Agnus Dei that
contains some of the Requiem’s most glorious music, delivered
here with a raptness that’s terribly moving. McCreesh is splendid,
even if Davis is more sonorous and the spatial effects – another
of Berlioz’s specialities – are more keenly felt. As always,
the choral singing is exceptional – expertly blended and deeply
felt – and I can’t fault McCreesh’s control of rhythm or dynamics
here. As for the closing pages those valedictory ‘Amens’ – among
the most sublime in all music – as profoundly beautiful as ever.
There is much to enjoy here, and one can only applaud McCreesh
for his painstaking work; this extends to the packaging, a handsome
– and substantial – hard-back book with the CDs seated in pockets
on the inside. Thankfully there’s none of that strained-through-the-sheets
authenticism here. The music is presented with a fine sense
of scale and weight. It’s certainly illuminating at times, but
I prefer the richer, more sonorous sound of traditional performances.
And while this new Requiem is just fine sonically, the Davis/Philips
recording is still the one to beat. Come to think of it, we
really need a Requiem on Blu-ray; any takers?
A triumph of performance and scholarship, but the crown still
belongs to Davis.
see also review by Simon
Thompson and John
OF THE MONTH - October)