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CD: MDT AmazonUK AmazonUS

Hector BERLIOZ (1803-1869)
Grande Messe des Morts (1837) [88:42]
Robert Murray (tenor)
Gabrieli Players and Consort
Chetham’s School of Music Symphonic Brass Ensemble
Wroclaw Philharmonic Choir and Orchestra/Paul McCreesh
rec. Mary Magdalene Church, Wroclaw, Poland, 13-15 September 2010
Latin text and English and Polish translations included
SIGNUM CLASSICS SIGCD280 [48:25 + 40:17]

Experience Classicsonline

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 ā 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 his review, 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 whole.
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.
Dan Morgan

see also review by Simon Thompson and John Quinn (RECORDING OF THE MONTH - October)
















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