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Hector BERLIOZ (1803-1869)
Grande Messe des Morts, Op 5
Robert McPherson (tenor)
Virginia Symphony Orchestra Chorus; The Choral Arts Society of Washington;
Virginia Symphony Orchestra/JoAnn Falletta
rec. live, 20 May 2017, Chrysler Hall, Norfolk, Virginia
Latin text & English translation included

As a recording artist JoAnn Falletta is best known for her work with the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra and the Ulster Orchestra. I’ve heard and enjoyed several of her recordings with both these orchestras. In addition, though, she’s been Music Director of the Virginia Symphony since 1991. She has made some recordings in Virginia, with the Virginia Arts Festival Chamber Players, one of which, a Mahler disc, came my way last year (review). I don’t know, however, if she has previously recorded with the Virginia Symphony.

The present recording was made at a live performance as part of the 2017 Virginia Arts Festival. The VSO has had its own affiliated chorus for 28 years now. Judging by the roster of singers printed in the booklet the VSO Chorus currently numbers some 90 singers. That’s a sizeable ensemble but the Berlioz Requiem demands very large forces so for this undertaking the local singers were augmented by members of the Choral Arts Society of Washington to form a combined choir of some 140 singers. I imagine that the orchestra was reinforced for the occasion, not least to accommodate Berlioz’s demands for extra brass groups.

I’ve had the good fortune not only to attend a few performances of Berlioz’s gaunt masterpiece over the years but also to sing in some performances. I know, therefore, what a sense of occasion a performance can engender. I also know how demanding a piece it is to perform. The forces required mean that performances are relatively rare so the concert here preserved may well have been quite literally a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for many of the participants.

There’s much about the performance to admire. I was slightly apprehensive when the sopranos’ very first entry – a piano top G – was somewhat quavery but that was a momentary aberration, perhaps caused by nerves, and thereafter all is well. In the opening minutes of the ‘Dies irae’ the choir sings with very good attention to detail, indicating that they’ve been thoroughly prepared by their respective chorus masters. In the mighty passages of this section – notably the ‘Tuba mirum’ – the basses make a fine showing. Their colleagues in the first tenors do well in the cruelly exposed ‘Quid sum miser’. Later, the choir is resolute in the face of the taxing ‘Lacrymosa’ and I take off my hat in particular to the tenors for whom this movement is, as I well know, a real test of stamina. Overall, the choir makes a very good job of this huge score in which they get so few chances for a break.

The Virginia Symphony also makes a good showing. The brass are suitably imposing at ‘Tuba mirum’ and ‘Judex’. One of the sections of the work that I love most is the Offertorium. Who but Berlioz would have included in a major choral work a movement where the choir largely sings on two notes and all the musical interest is carried by the orchestra? There’s some wonderful orchestral writing in this movement and the VSO delivers it very well. My one orchestral disappointment came in the Sanctus. In the reprise of the tenor solo the music is punctuated by a succession of soft bass drum and cymbal strokes. This may seem a small detail but, actually, it’s a crucial element in the scoring/. It’s not easy to bring off but when it is done properly it’s a really telling feature. Sadly, it’s virtually inaudible in this performance.

I liked the singing of Robert McPherson in the Sanctus. It’s a cruelly demanding solo. Ideally, the line should be floated but that’s so difficult to do, especially bearing in mind the tessitura, without the singing sounding strained. McPherson makes a pretty good job of his role. I believe he sang from the balcony, though the recording doesn’t convey the same sense of perspective that the audience must have experienced.

So, there are many plus points from the players and singers. Sadly, however, I have major reservations about the conducting of JoAnn Falletta. It will be noted that the disc plays for 76:38 – and that includes just over a minute of applause at the end. By contrast, two of my favourite versions of the Requiem play for much longer. Sir Colin Davis’s magisterial live recording from 2012 takes 94 minutes (review) while Paul McCreesh’s magnificent 2010 recording plays for 88:42 (review). These comparative timings indicate that in quite a few instances Falletta’s speeds are quite swift. As my Seen and Heard International colleague, Mark Berry has justly observed in a recent concert review “tempo is never just, or even principally, about speed”. This account of the Berlioz Requiem proves the correctness of that observation because in every case where I questioned one of Miss Falletta’s speeds I felt that her approach was at odds with the spirit of the music.

In the Introit (‘Requiem aeternam’) Falletta’s speed is swifter than in either the Davis or McCreesh readings. As a result, we miss the penitential trudge that characterises the Davis recording in particular. The music flows rather too smoothly and easily and, furthermore, the phrasing is nowhere near as imaginative as it is with either Davis or McCreesh, both of whom frequently impart some ‘give’ into the music and give it the necessary space. With Davis in particular, the listener has the impression of a solemn, sombre rite; that’s not apparent in the Falletta performance.

In the tricky, unaccompanied ‘Quarens me’ the pace is, once again, too swift, I think. In fairness, Falletta achieves a good flow in this movement but I miss the sense of an awestruck prayer. Davis provides this and thereby ensures that the movement is, as Berlioz surely intended, a complete contrast after the preceding ‘Rex tremendae’. Later, in the ‘Lacrymosa’ there’s power in this Virginia performance but I don’t sense that the music has the necessary implacable feel to it. Davis builds it into a dread musical juggernaut. Some may well feel Davis is just too broad in his pacing of this movement. McCreesh is closer to Falletta’s tempo but he still provides considerably more impact.

I was seriously disconcerted by Falletta’s approach to the twin choral fugues (‘Hosanna in excelsis’) in the Sanctus. I don’t believe I’ve ever heard these passages taken so swiftly. The marking is Allegro non troppo but Falletta’s speed is “troppo” indeed. In fact, it’s ludicrously fast and the music just sounds rushed off its feet. The choir manages to articulate the music at this tempo but quite how they manage it I have no idea. The concluding Agnus Dei opens with a marvellously imaginative sequence of wind/brass chords which are answered by the lower strings. Sadly, Falletta’s treatment of this remarkable sequence is, frankly, prosaic. In particular, she doesn’t allow enough of a pause between each pair of chords. McCreesh shows how it should be done. As the music moves seamlessly into a reprise of material heard in the Introit Falletta’s pacing is consistent with her approach to the opening of the work but she fails to move me: the music is taken too swiftly and is not given sufficient space. The concluding six-fold Amen is satisfactory but when I listened to McCreesh I found he was so much more imaginative in his treatment without any exaggeration. Listen, for example, to how he gets the muffled drums to sound, the rhythm just ever so slightly halting. He conveys the solemnity of the ending in a way that completely eludes Falletta.

In the end, I’m sorry to say, I came to the conclusion that JoAnn Falletta doesn’t really ‘get’ the Berlioz Requiem. In particular, I don’t think she understands the ceremonial rhetoric of the piece. As a result, her reading comes up short beside distinguished rivals such as Sir Colin Davis and Paul McCreesh.

The performance was given in Norfolk’s Chrysler Hall. I don’t know much about this venue other than that it’s a fairly modern building – it was opened in 1972 – and it must be a substantial auditorium since I see that the capacity is 2500. The recording engineers have done a good job in capturing the huge forces and I’m particularly pleased that one can hear the choir distinctly; that’s not always the case on choral/orchestral recordings but here a good balance has been achieved.

This isn’t a library choice for the Berlioz Requiem but it’s a good souvenir of what must have been a memorable evening in Norfolk, Virginia.

John Quinn



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