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Hector BERLIOZ (1803-1869)
Grande Messe des Morts, Op. 5 (1837, rev. 1852 & 1867)
Bror Magnus Tødenes (tenor)
Choir of Collegium Musicum; Edvard Grieg Kor; Royal Northern College of Music Chorus; Bergen Philharmonic Choir; Eikanger-Bjørsvik Musikklag; Musicians from Bergen Philharmonic Youth Orchestra and Crescendo; Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra/Edward Gardner
rec. live, 21-24 May 2018, Grieghallen, Bergen, Norway. DSD
Texts included

I’ve admired quite a few of Edward Gardner’s previous Bergen recordings, including some mighty choral/orchestral works, such as Janáček’s Glagolitic Mass (review) and Schoenberg’s Gurre-Lieder (review). The Berlioz Requiem is a work close to my heart – and one in which I’ve had the great good fortune to take part as a singer on a few occasions – so I was eager to hear what Gardner would make of it.

This recording was captured from concert performances given at the Bergen International Festival. As the list of artists shows, very substantial forces were assembled. Something that I think is relevant to the discussion of the recording is the choice of a substantial modern concert hall as the venue for this project. I can only assume that Bergen has no building other that the Grieghallen of sufficient size to accommodate both the large body of performers and an audience. In some ways that’s a pity; I miss a sense of aura about the results. A modern concert hall acoustic allows for the detail that you want to hear in a recording, of course. On the other hand, Berlioz undoubtedly had in mind a vast ecclesiastical acoustic for the work. I’ve experienced performances of this work in both the Royal Festival Hall and in a large cathedral; each building – and the respective acoustics – imparted a very different character to the music. It’s interesting to note that the two recordings by Sir Colin Davis that I have in my collection were both set down in London cathedrals. His 1969 Philips recording was made under studio conditions in Westminster Cathedral (review) while his 2012 LSO Live account was taken down at live performances in St Paul’s Cathedral (review).

I decided to use the 1969 Davis recording as my comparator here for no other reason than that I’d not listened to it for a while. A few years ago, it was remastered as an SACD by Pentatone. Unfortunately, I’ve not been able to hear that iteration, but returning to the CDs I was struck by how well they sound nearly 50 years on, albeit the microphones are rather closely placed – perhaps to mitigate the resonant acoustic – and the violins can sound a little edgy. I soon forgot, though, about any ways in which that recording might be felt to show its age.

Gardner’s account of the opening movement, ‘Requiem – Kyrie’ goes quite well on its own terms; it was when I turned to Davis that doubts began to arise. At once the listener is drawn into a different, deeper vision of the music. In part that’s because Davis paces the movement more broadly – he takes 11:33 against Gardner’s 10:20 - but it’s much more a case of the atmosphere that Davis creates. Gardner’s direction is good, however in the Davis reading something seems to happen in every bar, though not in an artificial way. Davis digs deeper into the music and as a result he finds more there. Often, he makes the music sound like a weary, resigned trudge, as if we’re seeing mourners making their way slowly towards a catafalque. One small detail caught my ear. Towards the end of the movement the choir mutters ‘Kyrie eleison’. In the Gardner performance the words are sung so smoothly that the rhythm is blunted. In Davis’s account, the rhythm is clearly – but not over-emphatically – articulated and the listener can hear the effect in the manner that, surely, Berlioz intended it.

In the ‘Dies irae’ Gardner is swifter than Davis from the very start. As a result, I hear less tension and foreboding in the Gardner account as compared to Davis. The ‘Quantus tremor est futurus’ passage is exciting at Gardner’s fast speed but the steadier Davis makes the music sound more desperate. When Gardner reaches the ‘Tuba mirum’ (track 2, 4:45) he’s already at a fast speed and the score mandates a direct relationship between the speed for the new section and what has gone before. As a result, his brass fanfares from the four corners of the compass are also quite swift; superficially, the result is exciting but it seems to me to be lacking in weight and drama. Davis, who reaches the same point in the score at 6:00, delivers all the necessary weight and dread majesty and in consequence his performance has terrific impact. A little later on, at ‘Judex ergo’ the Davis performance is simply overwhelming. He achieves hugely imposing grandeur; this really sounds like the Last Trump and, to be candid, Gardner simply isn’t in the same class. Furthermore, the ‘Judicanti responsura’ conclusion is a weary winding down in Davis’s hands whereas with Gardner it seems to be merely a quiet coda.

In the ‘Quid sum miser’ Gardner’s first tenors are excellent in their horribly exposed music – there really is nowhere to hide – though once again Davis seems to display even greater attention to detail and, in consequence, finds more in the music. The six-part unaccompanied ‘Quaerens me’ is very well done by Gardner’s singers. The choir also delivers for him in the ‘Lacrymosa’. This movement is fiendishly demanding of the tenors’ stamina and, as a member of the Tenors’ Union, I take my hat off to these singers, especially in the ‘Pie Jesu’ episode. This, though, is another movement where Sir Colin’s penchant for steadier tempi and, dare I say it, his patience and eye for the long view, give him an edge. Throughout the movement he’s more convincing and dramatic. Nowhere is this more apparent than as the end of the movement approaches and the brass bands and drums return (track 6, 7:50 in Gardner). At this point Gardner seems to me to press on a little more swiftly whereas Davis steadfastly adheres to his implacable tread. Thus, it is Davis who achieves far more in these closing pages which come over with huge power in his reading.

The Offertoire (‘Domine Jesu Christe’) is a stroke of genius on Berlioz’s part. Who but he would have given all the musical burden to the orchestra and required the choir simply to intone the text on two notes? Gardner opts for a lighter, fairly swift approach. The Bergen Philharmonic plays Berlioz’s wonderfully imaginative orchestral score quite marvellously and at the very end, where the subdued choral writing flowers into radiance the Bergen choirs produce a lovely sound. It won’t surprise you to learn that Davis is slower and more searching in his approach. In some ways this is rewarding, since he probes more deeply under the music’s surface. However, though I welcome his patient pacing elsewhere in the score, I wonder if this movement isn’t a bit too slow and weighty in his hands – after all, the tempo indication is moderato. Gardner is convincing here, as he is in the Sanctus. This movement introduces the only vocal solo in the entire work. It’s a cruelly demanding role: the tessitura almost demands that the soloist sing out yet that’s not really appropriate since the atmosphere should be celestial and restrained. One entirely legitimate solution is to place the soloist at a distance and that’s done here. The young Norwegian tenor, Bror Magnus Tødenes offers stylish and fresh singing. I liked his contribution and I prefer him to Ronald Dowd, who sings for Davis.

In the closing movement both of our conductors pace the spare-textured ‘Agnus Dei’ in an almost identical fashion. However, Berlioz then reprises music from the opening movement and because Tempo I is required Gardner is, of course, swifter than Davis. The work ends with a wonderful six-fold ‘Amen’. I was intrigued that after so many fairly flowing tempi, Gardner draws these bars out. Unfortunately, that rhetorical gesture makes the ascending and descending figures in the orchestra sound rather laboured. By contrast, Davis, whose basic speed is broader, is able to continue to the end without any tempo change and everything just falls into place naturally. His slower speed means the last few minutes of the score have much more import in his hands and the ‘Amens’ convey a palpable sense of the end of a grand ceremony.

Edward Gardner’s performance is very well played and sung. However, in the last analysis it’s a disappointing reading. I found myself unmoved by the performance whereas Davis stirred me very much, as he does - and perhaps even more so - in his 2012 recording. Sir Colin Davis was a great Berlioz conductor who understood that highly individual composer’s music probably like no other conductor has done. In his hands, the Grande Messe des Morts has a real sense of occasion about it. So, too, does it convey a sense of occasion under Paul McCreesh (review). I’m afraid that sense of occasion is absent here: Gardner’s performance is very proficient but does not seem inspired.

One reason that I was drawn to this recording was because I was keen to hear what Chandos engineering would bring to this often-spectacular work. I listened to this hybrid SACD using the stereo option and I found that the sound was good but, by this label’s very high standards, not outstanding. Perhaps listeners who can play the disc using the 5.0 surround option will get more impressive results. Hugh Macdonald’s booklet essay is first class.

Overall, I’m afraid this release didn’t live up to my expectations: it’s something of a missed opportunity.

John Quinn

Previous review: Dan Morgan



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