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Hector BERLIOZ (1803-1869)
Grande Messe des Morts

Bror Magnus Todenes (tenor), Choir of Collegium Musicum, Edvard Grieg Kor, Bergen Philharmonic Choir, Eikanger-Bjørsvik Musikklag, Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra / Edward Bror Magnus Todenes (tenor), Choir of Collegium Musicum, Edvard Grieg Kor, Bergen Philharmonic Choir, Eikanger-Bjørsvik Musikklag, Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra / Edward Gardner
rec. 2018, Bergen, Norway
Latin text and English translation included

Hector Berlioz’ dates (1803-1869) can surprise. His orchestration was adventurous, his melodies were extrovert and delicately sensitive and he combined instrumental forces with confidence, all in striking contrast with the ways in which his contemporaries approached large scale orchestral music.

Berlioz also drew on the rhetorical and dramatic traditions that originated in the fêtes (outdoor extravaganzas) of the 1790s. In works like the Te Deum of 1849 and Requiem (this Grande Messe Des Morts) of 1835, he re-imagined the fête genre, which was by then becoming passé. He implicitly developed its feeling and energies with his own unique high-powered romanticism.

There is no better example than the Grande Messe Des Morts in the composer’s output of a work in which sound matches space and occasion. In 1830 King Louis-Philippe I was attacked at a parade in Paris. Berlioz was commissioned to commemorate what could have been a much graver massacre still. And, although not every aspect of the commission went smoothly, Berlioz jumped at the chance to set the long-established text. The gravity and history of the Requiem Mass had long attracted him. Musical ideas came easily and he was also able to re-use material from several of his earlier compositions.

What emerges, though, is a mature, Byronic, through-composed and continuously thrilling testament as much to life as to death. It uses ten of the standard movements of the Mass and lasts just over 80 minutes - a lot to squeeze onto this single SACD from Chandos, which was recorded live at the Bergen International Festival in May 2018. The disc presents all that is great, enthralling, uplifting and affecting of this major work. It can be recommended in every way.

From the start it is obvious, though, that neither rhetoric nor scale, bombast nor explosiveness dominates this measured yet exciting and appropriately persuasive reading by Edward Garner. The performance is built on subtlety, rigour and, sympathy with Berlioz’ own values. These are values of thoughtfulness, sensitivity and clarity - rather than assault and monolithic volume, into which performances of the Grande Messe can degenerate in weaker hands. It prizes vivid yet considered communication over gratuitous tempestuousness. This Chandos release must be considered a front runner amongst the three dozen or so recordings currently available.

On this SACD Gardner has, with a paradoxically light touch, blended what for a lesser conductor might have amounted to irreconcilable opposites. The space of the Grieghallen in Bergen could have tempted excessive resonance and yanked and music towards spurious grandiosity. Here it is handled with care to create the ethereal and, at times, the almost quizzical.

A jaded conductor could have used the antiquity and the veneration which the text should attract as a vehicle on which to ‘coast’ in a mesh of sound. Gardner examines the Requiem Mass in Berlioz’ mind and heart afresh, bringing out nuances unemphasised since Mozart. Tenor soloist Bror Magnus Todenes and (members of) the Bergen Philharmonic Choir, choir of the Collegium Musicum Edvard Grieg and the Royal Northern College of Music Chorus project delicacy and precision, not bluster. They with drama, but it’s considered and almost phlegmatic drama.

These forces have not in any way, though, drawn the teeth of Berlioz’ vision. The performance remains taut, full of momentum, plausibly grand. Above all, it seems as though Gardner has dug right into what Berlioz aimed for when writing the Mass. His is a chilling and yet uplifting account delivered through focus and comprehension. Not through glancing at the surface – so easy to do with such large-scale works. Gardner has made the very most of the huge resources, not by thinking that he only has to ‘corral’ them, but actually by making something more than the sum of their collective parts.

Progress through the movements of the Grande Messe Des Morts is measured, never rushed. The music unfolds at its own pace despite the constant, unremitting tension and sense of urgency in Berlioz’ writing. Each movement – indeed each section of each movement – is given space and thought. At the same time, Gardner’s conception is holistic. The singers and players are all working to the same end. That end is neither histrionic nor spectacular, but consists in colour and intensity, the serious purpose of the Mass. Gardner relies on the weight of its texts meet naturally in the service of a predominantly musical purpose. None of Berlioz’ subtlety and adherence to the many qualities of Romanticism and precision which he made his own is lost. A magical combination, and one which remains ahead of its time.

The acoustic, as said, is ample without a sense of cavernousness. It reflects, rather than reinforces, the musicians’ sense of dedication to Berlioz’ own enthusiasm and discrimination. The surround sound works convincingly in tandem with the non-intrusive presence of the audience at a live event. Yet the performance fits the demands of a good listening environment. The lengthy and well-produced booklet with background texts (on the work’s origins, text, reception, as well as on the performers and Gardner) in English, German and French also includes the text in Latin and with only an English translation.

If you don’t know this very compelling work, this is an excellent place to start. If you follow Edward Gardner’s intriguing career, you’ll want this as a testament to the best he is so far capable of. If large scale choral repertoire thrills you as much for its exactness, clarity and dedication as for its scale, then prepare to be thrilled; and to be left entirely satisfied on repeated listenings.

Mark Sealey

Previous reviews: Dan Morgan ~ John Quinn

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