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Berlioz requiem 9029668350
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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
Latin text & English translation included
RCO LIVE RCO19006 SACD [83:41]

I’ve been itching to get my hands on a copy of this release ever since I read Dan Morgan’s enthusiastic review of the recording in its download format. Indeed, Dan was so taken with the recording that he made it one of his 2021 Recordings of the Year. I rather think that if I had encountered the recording soon enough, I would have probably made a similar nomination.

The sheer scale of the Grande messe des morts and the forces it requires – to say nothing of finding a suitable venue in which to stage it – means that live performances are rare. Indeed, though I‘ve had the great good fortune to sing in three performances over the years, only once have I been present as an audience member at a live performance: that was way back in 2009 when Valery Gergiev conducted it in Birmingham’s Symphony Hall (review).

When I first listened to the Pappano recording my initial impression – borne out by subsequent listening, following in the score – was that there was only one logical choice for a comparator: the first and best of Sir Colin Davis’s recordings. This was made under studio conditions in Westminster Cathedral for Philips in 1968. As well as its CD incarnation, I have it in the 2008 SACD remastering by Pentatone, which Leslie Wright reviewed. Interestingly, the SACD remastering was done by Polyhymnia International and that same company was responsible for this RCO Live version too.

Despite being over fifty years old, the Davis recording sounds amazingly good in its SACD reincarnation. For example, the brass groups in the ‘Tuba mirum’ register with terrific presence. Davis’s choir, the Arthur Oldham-trained London Symphony Chorus makes a fine showing. However, they are perhaps a bit close to the microphones – probably an attempt to mitigate the resonant Westminster Cathedral acoustic – and they produce an Anglo-Saxon sound which contrasts with the open-throated Italianate timbre of Pappano’s chorus, especially his basses. Interpretatively, Davis has a tendency to broader speeds than Pappano: his performance plays for just over 91 minutes, though his 2012 LSO Live account is even more spacious, coming in at 94 minutes (review). I yield to no one in my admiration for Sir Colin as a Berlioz interpreter, but Pappano is no less convincing and while he may adopt some swifter tempi than Davis, never once does the music sound rushed in his hands. I’m sure it’s no coincidence that both of these conductors approach Berlioz’s great score with a considerable background of operatic conducting.

In the opening ‘Requiem et Kyrie’ Pappano and his forces convey the necessary gravitas and solemnity. I was greatly impressed each time I listened by the choir’s dynamic range. Also striking – and this will be a feature of the performance as a whole – is the attention to detail in both chorus and orchestra. As I mentioned a moment ago, there is, unsurprisingly, an Italianate timbre to the choir’s sound, especially noticeable in the sonorous bass section and also, when singing loudly, the full-throated response of the tenors. I’m not sure I’ve previously heard an Italian choir in this work but I thought the quality of the sound suited the music very well. The choir numbers some 90 members; my goodness, they can pack a punch in the loud passages but listeners to this performance will note that the singers are also alive to the score’s many subtle nuances.

Pappano achieves an implacable build-up of tension in the ‘Dies irae’ – Sir Colin takes this music at a rather steadier speed – and then at the ‘Tuba mirum’ (tr 2, 5:14) the Dutch brass groups are suitably majestic – and disciplined. A booklet photo shows how the four groups were positioned and I would imagine that listeners who have surround facilities will benefit. A little later the ‘Judex ergo’ is even more overwhelming, as it should be. The hushed conclusion to this movement after all this tumult (‘Judicante responsura’) is just one of many flashes of genius on Berlioz’s part. The tenors have cruelly exposed music in ‘Quid sum miser’, which they negotiate with impeccable tuning. Their lines and the spare accompaniment surely illustrate the frailty of mankind in the face of Judgement; this short movement is another stroke of genius.

The ‘Lacrymosa’ is a superb creation and it comes off really well here. This is another case where Davis adopts a more measured approach. That’s completely valid because pacing such as Davis’s conveys an implacable inevitability, but I really like the dramatic thrust that Pappano brings to the movement. I must give a special shout-out to Pappano’s tenor section. As I know from personal experience, Berlioz makes huge demands on his tenors in this movement but the Santa Cecilia tenors are completely undaunted; they sing with fervour when required but the ‘Pie Jesu’ is plangently delivered. The last few minutes (from 8:10) are truly imposing; the listener is aware of a musical juggernaut. The performance of this movement and, indeed, of the entire ’Dies irae’ sequence is magnificent.

I’ve mentioned strokes of genius. In some way the Offertorium (‘Domine, Jesu Christe’) is the best example in the whole work. Who but Berlioz would have written a movement in a choral work in which, for almost the entire duration, the choir is asked to deliver the text simply by means of a two-note semitone figure? It’s the orchestra which takes centre stage here and the writing is wonderfully imaginative. Once again, Colin Davis is more measured here – in his hands the movement plays for some two minutes longer – and there’s much to be said for his deliberate way with the music. However, Pappano achieves a fine flow and the Concertgebouw Orkest play Berlioz’s music superbly, displaying marvellous attention to detail.

The ‘Sanctus’ introduces us to the Mexican tenor Javier Camarena. This movement is a testing assignment: the tessitura is demanding and the tenor needs to strike the right balance between fervour and delicacy. Ronald Dowd, Davis’s soloist, is admirable in many ways but I’ve always thought he’s a bit too forthright. That impression is reinforced by hearing Camarena. The Mexican has, I think, an ideal voice for this music. His tone is light but there’s no lack of strength. He impressed me the first time he sings, but when the soloist re-enters after the first choral ‘Hosanna’ I think he’s even better, singing most expressively and with finesse. Incidentally, the two choral fugues on ‘Hosanna’ are splendidly vital here. My only tiny quibble is that when the tenor sings his second solo Berlioz enriches the scoring very subtly with a series of soft but telling strokes on bass drum and cymbal. It’s a magical, imaginative addition, suggesting to me a censer brushing against its chain. Even through headphones, those little touches are just a bit too discreet, especially the bass drum, on the RCO Live recording; they’re better judged by the Philips engineers on the Davis disc.

The ‘Agnus Dei’ offers another stroke of genius in the shape of the fantastic sequence of solemn woodwind chords, in unexpected progression, before Berlioz revisits the music of the ‘Hostias’, including the widely spaced chords for flutes and trombones. All of these chords are impeccably voiced by the orchestra and just as impeccable is the singing of the tenors and basses. Then Berlioz returns to the music of the opening movement to bring his Requiem to a close. Pappano unfolds this last movement flawlessly. The series of ‘Amens’ never fails to move me: with the drums gently thudding, the music constitutes a dignified leave-taking and it’s ideally done in this performance.

Revisiting the Davis performance, as remastered by Pentatone with such success, makes me wonder if that company might consider licensing some more of the cycle that Sir Colin recorded for Philips and remastering them as SACDs. Such treatment of Sir Colin’s recordings of the Te Deum, La Damnation de Faust and L’Enfance du Christ would be especially welcome.

Returning, as I must, to this new recording, I hope I’ve made it clear that Antonio Pappano’s recording of the Grande messe des morts is a magnificent achievement. Interpretatively, it rivals the Colin Davis recording – the differences in approach are fascinating; neither is “better” than the other. No less than Davis, Pappano brings out the many nuances of Berlioz’s masterpiece and he is just as successful in conveying its scale and grandeur. He’s aided by superb playing and singing and by a magnificent recording. This is as fine a traversal of the score as I’ve heard in years and on every front it’s deeply impressive.

RCO Live has presented the recording in a way that complements the excellence of the performance itself. The recorded sound is magnificent; the acoustic of the Concertgebouw suits the music. I listened to the stereo layer of this SACD and got excellent results both through loudspeakers and through headphones. I’m impatient to take this disc to the MusicWeb International Listening Studio and experience it on high-end equipment. The disc is housed in a handsome hardback book-style package which includes useful notes in four languages, the sung text and several photographs taken while the Requiem was being performed; these pictures convey a good sense of the scale of this enterprise.

John Quinn

Previous review: Dan Morgan

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