RECORDING OF THE MONTH
Hector BERLIOZ (1803-1869)
Grand Messe des morts (1837) [94:04]
Barry Banks (tenor)
London Philharmonic Choir; London Symphony Chorus
London Symphony Orchestra/Sir Colin Davis
rec. live, 25-26 June 2012, St. Paul’s Cathedral, London. DSD
Latin texts and English translations included
LSO LIVE LSO0729 SACD [52:58 + 41:10]
This review was written and submitted a few weeks ago and, by coincidence, it had already been scheduled for publication today before the announcement earlier this week of the death of Sir Colin Davis. His death casts a poignant shadow but does not change in any respect my view of this recording though the opportunity has been taken to make one or two very minor changes to the wording to reflect Sir Colin’s passing.
Sir Colin Davis’s magnificent Berlioz cycle for LSO Live, assembled over quite a long period of time but mainly deriving from performances in 2000, has had a significant gap in it - until now. We badly needed a new recording from him of the Grand Messe des morts and here it is, at last. This is Sir Colin’s third recording of this monumental work. There’s a live 1994 performance from Dresden. I’ve not heard that reading but Dan Morgan found much to admire in it (review) even if he didn’t think the performance eclipsed Davis’s 1969 Philips recording, made under studio conditions in Westminster Cathedral. That recording was reissued in SACD format by Pentatone Classics a few years ago. I’ve not heard that transfer, which was reviewed by Leslie Wright, but the original Philips CDs have long been a core item in my collection. Comparisons between Davis 1969 and Davis 2012 in this review will be with the Philips version.
This new recording was made during a pair of live performances in St. Paul’s Cathedral in June 2012, which we now know were among Sir Colin’s last London concerts. My Seen and Heard colleague, Mark Berry, was present at the second of those performances and I recall that as I read his penetrating review I was very envious that he’d been able to attend such a memorable event. Thank goodness it has been preserved on disc.
The Berlioz Requiem must be one of the most difficult pieces to do justice to for domestic listening. The forces are vast, including, famously, the four brass bands and massive array of timpani. So the engineers have the challenge of accurately reporting some stupendously powerful climaxes. However, if that were not enough the score demands a wide dynamic range so that the engineers - and performers - must make the quiet passages, of which there are many, sound as thrillingly intense as the loudest climaxes. Finally, the work will make its strongest impact if performed in a large building so the engineers will have to cope with a spacious, resonant acoustic. It’s good to report that engineer Neil Hutchinson and producer James Mallinson have successfully met and surmounted all these challenges. The sound on these discs struck me as very impressive; there’s a wide dynamic range, a good sense of space and plenty of internal detail registers. I listened to this recording in CD format; I would imagine that an SACD system will produce even more satisfying and spectacular results.
As I listened I had the impression of a very spacious performance. Davis takes some three minutes longer as compared with his 1969 version, which plays for 91:10. Overall, I don’t think the interpretation has changed significantly in terms of pacing. However, I noted a number of instances where things are a little more expansive than in 1969, one such being the very end of the Requiem. In every case I felt that the extra expansiveness added something. The 1969 recording, though also made in a spacious acoustic, sounds much closer and immediate. I rather think that the Philips engineers may have been fearful that the sound would be unacceptably diffused in the large space of Westminster Cathedral and so placed their microphones relatively close to the performers. The result is an immediate, close-up sound which certainly allows detail to register but is somewhat short on ambience. I wouldn’t go quite so far as to say you can hear individual voices in the choir but that’s almost true.
Daringly, and with the benefit of up-to-date recording techniques, the LSO Live engineers have opted to give us the “bigger picture”. The listener gets a very good sense of the spaciousness of St Paul’s and the space is used intelligently. Comparing the two recordings my conclusion is that “distance lends enchantment”. By this I mean that in this new recording you have a very real sense of the music unfolding in the sort of large acoustic that Berlioz had in mind. Yet, at the same time, the recording reports a significant amount of detail so listeners need not fear they will be faced with a distant, fuzzy impression. The LSO Live engineers have also achieved a good balance between choir and orchestra so that even when Berlioz lets rip with his full instrumental forces you can still hear the choir in a perfectly satisfactory way. Davis has a larger chorus at his disposal this time: the combined LPO and LSO choruses must number over two hundred voices whereas in 1969 the LSO Chorus and Wandsworth School Boys’ Choir would have constituted a smaller body.
The choral contribution in 1969 was very good and highly committed but the close microphones placed the singers under merciless scrutiny. You can hear, for example, several instances where the tenors, whose part is unremittingly strenuous, are less than perfect in their tuning. There are one or two occasions when the 2012 chorus displays marginal fallibility but these are rare and overall the choral singing is very fine indeed. I’m full of admiration for the sheer stamina of the 2012 chorus who sang this hugely demanding work on two consecutive nights. I’ve had the good fortune to sing the work myself in the past but one performance was quite enough; it’s a huge sing, especially for the tenors.
The orchestral playing is superb throughout. The 1969 LSO played exceptionally well for Davis but I venture to suggest that the standard is even higher in 2012. The Offertoire movement is, in many ways, my favourite and in this, the orchestra carries the main musical burden. The 1969 performance of this inspired movement is very fine but the 2012 surpasses it. The impression - and this applies to the 1969 reading as a whole - is that, at least as recorded, the performance is presented in primary colours whereas the 2012 traversal contains much more in the way of pastel shading. In part this is to do with the sound achieved by the respective engineers but I sense also that Davis is even more subtle in his approach this time round. That also shows through in the way accents are delivered. Time and again in 1969 the accents are, well, accentuated; in 2012 the accents are properly observed and used to delineate the music but the treatment of them is often less forceful.
Unlike most Requiems, Berlioz makes little use of vocal soloists. In fact, a soloist appears in just one movement: the Sanctus. It’s a very difficult part to sing. The tessitura is cruelly demanding and requires a certain degree of vocal heft simply to sustain. Yet the nature of the music is such that, ideally, the line should be floated as gently as the singer can manage, as Robert Murray does on Paul McCreesh’s recent recording (review). What a challenging task Berlioz sets his soloist! Davis positions his tenor, Barry Banks, at what seems like quite a distance; he’s off to the right-hand of the stage. Banks sings the part in a pretty forthright, open-throated operatic style. To be fair to him, I suspect this was a pragmatic solution to the requirement to project this demanding part in such a large physical space. I think he got away with it because he was positioned at such a distance but, stylistically, I don’t really care for his way with the music. It’s neither inward nor sweet-toned. Ronald Dowd, Davis’s soloist in 1969, is quite a bit closer to the front of the sound-stage and he too sings out fairly strongly, though not to the same degree as Banks. At times Dowd sounds uncomfortable but I prefer him. That said, neither Dowd nor Banks is in the same league as Léopold Simoneau, who can be heard on Charles Munch’s 1959 Boston recording and on a live 1956 recording conducted by Dimitri Mitropoulos. Stylistically, Simoneau is in a class apart.
Sir Colin Davis, too, is in a class apart as a Berlioz interpreter and this performance simply confirms that. This is, from start to finish, magnificent. It’s astonishing to think that when this recording was made he was a few weeks shy of his eighty-fifth birthday for there is no want of energy here. The Big Moments come off superbly, for example. He builds the Dies Irae inexorably and when the brass bands are unleashed at the Tuba mirum (CD 1, track 2, 6:01) the sound is tumultuous. Davis keeps the brass together - no mean feat, especially in this vast acoustic. The music has a dread majesty that sets the hairs on the back of the neck on edge. However, the Judex ergo (11:19) is an even greater cataclysm; the massed drums sound like an earthquake and I can’t readily recall hearing this passage delivered with such potency - what must it have been like for the audience in St. Paul’s? The McCreesh recording is mightily impressive at this point also but that’s a recording made under studio conditions and, I fancy, in a slightly smaller building - interestingly, the same balance engineer, Neil Hutchinson, was responsible for both recordings. Davis is also hugely imposing in Rex tremendae while the implacable musical juggernaut that is the Lacrymosa is quite awesome in its impact. Here the jagged, irregular orchestral interjections cut through like knives early on in the movement while the closing moments are frighteningly intense; I don’t think I’ve ever heard the conclusion of this movement sound so dark and powerful.
Yet the Lacrymosa also has quieter stretches, such as the Pie Jesu which is sweet-toned and supplicatory. This reminds us that, for all the blaze and magnificence of its loud passages, much of the Berlioz Requiem is subdued and subtle. This is where Davis has few, if any, peers. The very opening of the work is grave and imposing. Davis is very patient and I don’t think it’s too fanciful to conjure up a mental image of a slow funeral procession coming out of the distance and gradually getting closer. The doleful Quid sum miser offers a tremendous contrast after the tumult of the Tuba mirum - and how unfair of Berlioz to visit such an exposed movement on the tenors immediately after the rigours of the Tuba mirum: these tenors pass that test. The unaccompanied choral singing in Quaerens me is excellent: the singers’ control is very good and Davis shapes the music unerringly. Davis is masterly in the Offertoire, which he takes just a little more broadly than in 1969. The subdued choral singing suggests the distant calls of souls in Purgatory while the orchestral voicing is positively spectral at times. To my ears much of this movement has an ominous, almost oppressive feel but at 8:19 (Et signifer sanctus Michael) the atmosphere lightens progressively until the wondrous key change into luminous D major (10:17), superbly prepared and then achieved by Davis, brings repose.
The concluding Agnus Dei is marvellously done. Davis brings out a wonderful, subtle variety of colourings in those strange orchestral chords. When music from the opening movement is reprised (from 5:45) he is unhurried and the music has a visionary quality about it, albeit the vision is a dark one. The concluding series of Amens - an amazingly original tonal progression for its time - with the muffled drums underneath brings the performance to a serene conclusion.
Comparing Davis’s 2012 interpretation with the 1969 version - and, indeed, thinking of versions by other conductors - my chief impression is that the work has rarely sounded as dark as it does here. By that I don’t mean a bleak darkness, more that its gaunt, austere majesty is perfectly realised. The colours that are suggested are rich, glowing hues of red, brown and gold and that’s as it should be. This may be due in part to the acoustic in which the music was performed but I sense also that this is the way in which Davis wanted the music to come across. It’s magnificent.
With splendidly committed singing from the choirs, the LSO on top of its very considerable form and the finest, most experienced Berlioz conductor of the age on the podium this is a very considerable reading of the Grand Messe des morts and the LSO Live engineers have done it justice. This, we now know was Sir Colin’s last word on this great score. It seems, therefore, even more fitting than I originally intended when writing this review to let the verdict with which Mark Berry concluded his review of the concert sum up this recording also: “We heard the wisdom and cogency of a performance that seemed to sum up the devotion of a career.” I can only agree and urge all Berlioz enthusiasts to hear this indispensable recording.
Berlioz found in Sir Colin Davis a champion beyond compare. One of his very first commercial recordings, made over 50 years ago, was a performance of L’Enfance du Christ. This, his last-ever Berlioz recording, demonstrates yet again his unique empathy with and understanding of Berlioz’s music as well as his authority in conducting it.
Sir Colin Davis’s final Berlioz recording: a very considerable reading of the Grand Messe des morts. It’s magnificent.
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