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Hector BERLIOZ (1803-1869)
Grande messe des morts, Op. 5 (1837)
Javier Camarena (tenor)
Coro Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia
Concertgebouw Orkest/Sir Antonio Pappano
rec. live, 3 & 4 May 2019, Concertgebouw, Amsterdam
Reviewed as a two-channel DXD 24-bit/352.8kHz download from NativeDSD
Pdf booklet includes sung texts (Latin & English)
RCO LIVE RCO19006 (9029668350) SACD [83:41]

There’s a story – possibly apocryphal – about Leonard Bernstein, rehearsing the Grande messe des morts in the 1970s. A storm broke overhead, and, following a particularly loud clap of thunder, he quipped: ‘Colin Davis has arrived!’ Hardly surprising, as Sir Colin was the leading Berlioz interpreter back then. Indeed, his pioneering Philips traversal of the ‘complete works’ has never been equalled, his remakes for LSO Live often lacking the proselytizing zeal that made the earlier series so special. As for the Requiem, Davis also recorded it with the Staatskapelle Dresden in 1994, at a memorial concert for those who died in the firestorms of 13/14 February 1945 (Profil). That sombre, intensely moving performance is far preferable to the LSO Live one, recorded at St Paul’s in 2012, which I feel is fatally compromised by the cathedral’s notorious echo. I experienced the problem at first hand in 2019, when I sat and watched conductor John Nelson struggling manfully to keep his assembled forces in sync. The concert was recorded and released by Erato later that year.

I daresay the success of Sir Colin’s first recording of the piece – made in the more accommodating acoustic of Westminster Cathedral in November 1969 – was behind the flurry of releases that followed. Louis Frémaux and the CBSO introduced me to this remarkable work in the mid-1970s, the seat-pinning ‘Tuba mirum’ played to anyone who’d listen. That version, reissued by Warner in 2019, is also available as part of a 12-disc tribute box that John Quinn welcomed on these pages four years ago. Then there was Bernstein’s Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France recording (Sony), Lorin Maazel’s Cleveland set (Decca), and, finally, an LPO one conducted by André Previn (Warner). In addition to Davis/Dresden, I’ve reviewed performances by Sylvain Cambreling and the SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg (Glor Classics) and, most recently, Edward Gardner’s with the Bergen Philharmonic (Chandos). Alas, neither is remotely competitive.

All of which means there’s a lot riding on this Concertgebouw performance of Berlioz’s Op. 5, conducted by Sir Antonio Pappano, who’s been in charge of the Royal Opera House since 2002. And while he’s a hit in the pit, he’s also been winning plaudits for his work on the podium; those orchestral outings usually involve the Orchestra dell’ Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, of which he’s been the MD since 2005. Pappano’s worked with other ensembles, too; his LSO coupling of Vaughan Williams’ Fourth and Sixth Symphonies was a MusicWeb Recording of the Month in April 2021 (LSO Live). Happily, this conductor’s no stranger to Berlioz, his ROH video of Les Troyens much praised by Dave Billinge (Opus Arte). Indeed, his experience in the opera house – like Davis’s – should make him a good fit for the Grande messe des morts, surely one of the most theatrical sacred works ever written.

The Dutch orchestra and Italian choir are superb in the ‘Requiem – Kyrie’. Pappano shapes the music most beautifully, those rocking string figures especially well done. And although the Davis/Philips recording hardly shows its age, it’s no match for Everett Porter’s RCO one. He also engineered Detlev Glanert’s large-scale Requiem for Hieronymus Bosch, a spectacular RCO Live release I reviewed in 2017. The soundstage for the Berlioz is both broad and deep, the fabled Concertgebouw acoustic faithfully rendered; players and singers are also ideally balanced. The latter are as rapt as one could wish here, chorus master Ciro Visco drawing the most ravishing sounds from his talented charges. As for Pappano, he makes it all sound so effortless, ‘floating’ those heavenly phrases in much the same way Davis did all those years ago. The ‘Dies irae – Tuba mirum’ has ample weight, that air of implacable tension, of approaching cataclysm, palpable from the start. The Last Trump is suitably awe-inducing, the Dutch brass really showing their mettle, the pate- and earth-cracking Day of Judgement a musical and sonic tour-de-force. As expected, the stereo image is rock solid, the sense of presence – of ‘being there’ – quite remarkable.

Even at this early stage, it’s clear Pappano has the measure of Berlioz’s ambitious score. Like Davis before him, he knows the importance of vocal and instrumental inflexions, not to mention the dramatic value of the composer’s carefully crafted spatial effects. The ‘Quid sum miser’ is wonderfully ethereal, the ‘Rex tremendae’ rhythmically alert. And while the latter doesn’t have quite the urge and amplitude it has in Davis’s first recording, it works well in the context of Pappano’s leaner, more transparent performance. The choir, focused and fervent, are splendid here, as they are in the ‘Quaerens me’, which finds them at their devotional best. Of course, it’s the alignment of a great score, committed musicianship and top-flight engineering that creates a special kind of magic, the spell lingering long after the listening session has ended.

I’m pleased to report that the ‘Lacrymosa’ has plenty of ‘swing’, orchestra and chorus supremely supple throughout. With a cathedral to play with, the Philips team went for broke. The sonic results are undeniably exciting – even exhilarating – the work’s ceremonial splendour never in doubt; so it’s left to Pappano, in a smaller space, to bring out the many felicities that his rival tends to miss. Then again, such differences matter less when these two conductors are so obviously passionate about the piece. For instance, while Pappano’s ‘Offertorium’ feels rather austere next to Davis’s, both are immensely persuasive. The British and Italian singers are on a par here, although it’s the latter who bring a heightened level of finesse and depth of feeling to this music. The close in particular is suffused with a rare and lovely light; it’s just one of many elevated - and elevating - episodes in this often revelatory reading. Pappano’s ‘Hostias’ is also nicely done, although the smaller performing space means the trombone pedals can’t be ‘launched’ à la Davis. But, as ever, it’s Ciro Visco’s choir who stand out here, their soft, haloed singing especially affecting.

As for the ‘Sanctus’, it’s the soloist who takes centre stage. This is a small but crucial role, and, joy of joys, the Mexican tenor Javier Camarena sings with an ardour and purity of tone that’s most appealing. Ronald Dowd, in Davis’s first recording, soars magnificently above the orchestra and chorus; admittedly, that probably wouldn’t be possible in concert, but, my goodness, what a thrilling delivery. (Barry Banks in the LSO Live performance sounds too small and too far away, while Gardner’s Bror Magnus Tødenes seems to be positioned somewhere in the car park.) The ‘Agnus Dei’, a highlight of Sir Colin’s Philips and Profil recordings, is much darker than that of his fellow knight. Then again, aided and abetted by fine engineering and vast votive spaces, it was always going to be easier for Davis to present the Requiem as a very grand, very public display of mourning for a fallen hero. In his own way, Pappano manages to be just as moving here. But, it’s the choir who have the last word, their long-breathed ‘Amens’ a fitting coda to this distinguished – and most desirable – release.

A musical and sonic milestone; in short, a Requiem to die for.

Dan Morgan

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