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Hector BERLIOZ (1803-1869)
La Grande Messe des Morts (Requiem), Op. 5, H. 75 (1837)
Richard Lewis (tenor), Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus / Sir Thomas Beecham
rec. live, radio broadcast 13 December 1959, Royal Albert Hall
Ambient Stereo

Previously released on the BBC Legends label in mono, this issue by Pristine’s remastering into Ambient Stereo of the radio broadcast represents a considerable and welcome improvement over that – and owing to Beecham’s propulsive tempi, fits neatly on to a single CD.

Premiered with over four hundred performers, including a very large orchestra with four antiphonal brass ensembles offstage, as an homage to the seventh anniversary of the 1830 Revolution, the Requiem is here performed live with 148 voices and 143 players, so Beecham’s forces come close to the original. It narrates a real story of the soul's agony as dramatically as Verdi – another non-believer - but in Berlioz’ inimitable manner. Its nearest model is Cherubini’s Requiem of 1816, but that is far more conventional in idiom; for instance, his handling of the Dies Irae is utterly different from any other Romantic composer's conception, opening in an almost Elgarian, meditative vein before those swirling, ascending strings scale the octave of D in unison to create a maelstrom of doubt and fear and the weirdly syncopated rhythms of the Lacrymosa are unlike anything previously heard. Beecham’s more urgent pace for the that makes it less imposing and monolithic than Munch’s and more of an urgent supplication; it is another way to do it and the climax is stirring. Being live, this performance inevitably contains a few imprecisions but by and large both choir and orchestra and choir are on fine form. The latter is evidently well rehearsed and drilled; the tenors in particular are lusty and penetrating, the basses are trenchant and the sopranos’ top notes powerful and in tune.

The Offertoire, with its eerie, insistent ostinato on the semitone interval between A and B-flat, rightly takes its place at the heart of the work, and the modal shift from D minor to the major at 7’40” is magically implemented here – making the coughing all the more regrettable, although those bronchial intrusions from the audience are fortunately often covered by the celestial racket of the music. In the Sanctus, tenor Richard Lewis sings his solo in admirably confident, forthright manner without rivalling the ethereal poise of Simoneau or the gleaming, golden tone of Pavarotti. The brief concluding double fugue is impressively executed, then the Agnus Dei draws the work to a close in suitably awed, yet consolatory, G major.

Bearing in mind that this is a live recording sixty years old, we can only be grateful to Pristine for refurbishing it so successfully, allowing us to hear in such gratifying sound Beecham’s last concert in the Royal Albert Hall, performing a composer dear to his heart. The balance between the voices and various orchestral sections here is very good, and although I don’t think Beecham quite achieves the monumental grandeur of my two favourite performances, conducted by Munch (made earlier that same year) and Levine (1989,) there is still a real sense of occasion and scale here. This might not overshadow more modern, studio recordings – it cannot, given the restricted sound and the splendour of DG’s digital version - but it does convey faithfully the excitement of what was evidently a memorable occasion.

Ralph Moore

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