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Berlioz’s Requiem – a survey of the recordings
By Ralph Moore

Berlioz’ Grande Messe des Morts is a remarkably daring and innovative work for its time, typical of the composer’s iconoclastic originality. While certainly not conventionally pious, Berlioz retained an affection for the Mass imbued in him via his Catholic upbringing, and the drama inherent within the text of the liturgy brought out the best in his musical creativity; the modern listener must still be astonished by its scope and invention. It is not entirely without precedent; Berlioz was clearly influenced to some degree by Cherubini’s Requiem, but to modern ears that is a conservative and unadventurous work and the most obvious forerunner to Berlioz’ huge masterwork is his own Messe solennelle, written in 1824 when he was just 21, which he claimed to have burned, but the manuscript was found in an Antwerp organ loft in 1991 and it became clear that elements of it – or at least of its style, especially the Resurrexit – found their way into his Requiem thirteen years later. It was the composer’s favourite among his compositions; he famously declared, "If I were threatened with the destruction of the whole of my works save one, I should crave mercy for the Messe des morts".

Two MusicWeb colleagues have recently very favourably and comprehensively reviewed (review ~ review) Pappano’s live recording, prompting me to revisit and reassess a fair selection of the recordings available. It is more important that a recording convey a sense of the numinous than it be precise in ensemble – although obviously the co-ordination of such large voices presents daunting challenges. The single worst and most embarrassing concert I have ever attend was a performance of this work at the Birmingham Symphony Hall by Sir Roger Norrington in the 90s. In in typical fashion, he fatally miniaturised and diminished it and it was in any case clearly under-rehearsed; both the conception and the ensemble fell apart and the only saving grace was tenor Toby Spence’s fine solo contribution. You will not be surprised to learn that I have not included his recording in this survey; I quote with acknowledgements an Amazon review which neatly reflects my own view: “It would be hard to imagine a more charmless and uninspired performance of the Berlioz Requiem than this. It is quite without emotional charge and Norrington seems to have little feel for the many marvels of Berlioz's orchestration.”

I have also excluded otherwise well-regarded recordings by Frémaux and Previn, as they both have Robert Tear as their soloist, and another conducted by Spano with tenor Frank Lopardo. I find those constricted tenors wholly unacceptable to my ears, especially given how many great voices have recorded the Sanctus and I do not think this is how properly produced tenors should sound. While that is only one ten-minute movement in a work usually lasting between eighty and ninety minutes, it is of central importance and requires a voice of the highest calibre. I try to be up-front about my own critical criteria and quirks of taste and you, of course, might not share my aversion, so by all means sample their recordings on YouTube and come to your own conclusions. None, in any case, for a variety of reasons regarding either sound or performance, or both, is a first recommendation.

Sound engineering must also be a major criterion, but there are recordings dating back sixty years to the beginning of the stereo era which still stand up well. All twenty-one recordings here are in stereo (even if the first is hard to find), as surely this of all works must be heard in a rich, spacious acoustic, so regrettably, I consider neither of the 1956 mono Mitropoulos recordings. I have assessed Colin Davis’ three recordings as a unit for convenience and purposes of comparison. As ever, this conspectus is not wholly comprehensive but I think the best and most important recordings are here.

The Recordings
Hermann Scherchen, 1958
Orchestre du Théâtre National de l'Opéra de Paris
Choeurs de la Radiodiffusion Française
Jean Giraudeau (tenor)
Tahra West [98:46]

This recording, made in April 1958, was a co-production between Radiodiffusion Française on the Véga label in mono and the American label Westminster in stereo. It was eventually issued on CD by Adès but only in mono; when the rights were released, the stereo version finally appeared, first on the Rediscovery label in 2000, then on Tahra in 2005, reviewed here by my MWI colleague Jonathan Woolf. It is currently available in a Documents 10 CD super-bargain set which I do not have but I suspect that is the mono version. Both the stereo releases now seem to be impossible to obtain; copies of the mono Adès issue may be found but they are expensive. You can, however, hear that mono version on YouTube.

As you may see from the timing, it is unusually slow and deliberate - but it is a noble, powerful performance and still generates tension at key points. The chorus is noticeably robust, passionate and incisive; the way the tenors almost shout in the Dies irae is really arresting. Jean Giraudeau had far too small and tight a tenor for both Beecham’s and Scherchen’s recordings of Les Troyens but its light, penetrating quality works better here, even if he relies too heavily on falsetto.

I quote here with acknowledgements and his permission this review by Robert Benson from the year 2000 on the Classical CD Review website, as it accurately reflects my own response:

“The recording was made in the church of Saint-Louis-des-Invalides, site of the premiere December 5, 1837. It is quite amazing that sonically it is so impressive, considering the church's vast expanses and odd shape, and the then relatively new technique of stereophonic recording. Balances are satisfactory, spatial effects work, and if the big moments lack the dynamic range and impact of digital, what is there is highly impressive in its own right. Hermann Scherchen's interpretation is highly individual, leisurely for the most part, but there are moments of great impetus that are thrilling indeed. Jean Girardeau is the superb tenor soloist, the Paris Opera chorus is skilled, and the orchestra has a sound perfect for the occasion. French brass, with its distinctive timbre, is exemplary; I don't know of another recording that captures so well the snarling trombones of the final Agnus Dei.”

Recommendations are otiose given its unavailability – such a shame given how desirable it is - but collectors might like to look out for it.
Charles Munch, 1959
Boston Symphony Orchestra
New England Conservatory Chorus
Léopold Simoneau (tenor)
RCA [83:33]

Munch was a Berlioz specialist and this is the recording whereby an older generation will have come to know this work. The remastered sound holds up well despite a bit of tape flutter and these are distinguished forces by any standards. This one of the grandest of accounts and deserves its classic status: the chorus is really very good, Simoneau’s combination of strength and sweetness is close to ideal and Munch balances grandeur with passion – just as the engineers balance the orchestra against the voices very successfully. Some things, like the men’s muttered “Kyrie eleison” and the abandon of the cries of “Rex” in the Rex tremendae are really effective and despite its age, I don’t think anyone will be disappointed by this unless you demand digital sound.

The chorus sounds young, probably because it was indeed made up of younger folk, and that lends a strange kind of pathos to the existential angst Berlioz so vividly depicts, even though, for the same reason, the basses lack a bit of heft and resonance. The four-ply brass chorale still sounds terrific, as do the tenors; I often think how Berlioz’ Requiem anticipates Verdi’s in its emphasis upon desperate human supplication as opposed to divine consolation and Munch’s performance only consolidates that resemblance, despite its epic scale. The end of the Lacrymosa is overwhelming, contrasting tellingly with the eerie semitone oscillation of the ensuing Offertoire and its convoluted orchestral line, beautifully articulated here – like a hugely upscaled version of the “Marche nocturne” from L’enfance du Christ.

There is good reason why this recording remains a classic.
Sir Thomas Beecham, live 1959
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus
Richard Lewis (tenor)
Pristine Audio [78:48] – mono but remastered into Ambient Stereo

I reviewed this excellent remastering when it first appeared and refer you to that review for my thoughts on it, where I make comparison with the preceding Munch recording, acknowledging the virtues of Beecham’s version but essentially tipping the balance in favour of the RCA recording made in the same year.

Eugene Ormandy, 1964
Philadelphia Orchestra
Temple University Choir
Cesare Valletti (tenor)
Sony [77:41]

The analogue sound here is excellent, as is almost invariably the case with the bargain, Sony “Essential Classics” recordings – even if there is something a bit clinical about it, with individual voices in the chorus rather prominent, but I am not complaining. It all fits neatly on to one disc, too.

There is a camp of critics, especially in the US, which is routinely dismissive and even contemptuous of Ormandy, but pulling off a challenge such as this cannot be done by a hack. The tenors in the Temple University Choir here are not as free up top as Munch’s New England Conservatory Chorus and the sopranos are bit thinner of tone; I also miss a certain indefinable “spirituality” in their straightforward singing but the playing of the orchestra is of course sumptuous and I love the way Ormandy handles the slow crescendo and ratcheting up of tension throughout the Dies Irae. The stereo separation of the brass ensembles is outstanding in its clarity and impact, and the timpani are thunderous. A further advantage is the presence of Cesare Valletti, deservedly ubiquitous in the 50s and here surpassing even Simoneau for body and beauty of tone, with even easier top notes, and the soft clash of cymbals underscored by bass drum accompanying his solo is atmospherically suggestive of the swinging censer during the Mass. The strange Agnus Dei which concludes the Requiem is particularly successfully executed, first halting, then increasingly consolatory, culminating in the succession of lovely string arpeggios underlying the repeated “Amen” cadences.

I marginally prefer Munch’s recording in what is a comparable, even similar performance, as Munch finds both more tension and more grandeur in the music at slightly slower tempi and with a better choir, but this still provides much pleasure and I would not want to be without Valletti.

Sir Colin Davis’ three recordings:
Studio 1969
London Symphony Orchestra & Chorus
Wandsworth School Boys’ Choir
Ronald Dowd (tenor)
Philips/Decca [91:22]

Studio 1994
Staatskapelle Dresden
Chor der Sächsischen Staatsoper Dresden; Sinfoniechor Dresden; Singakademie Dresden
Keith Lkaia-Purdy, tenor
Profil Hänssler [90:00]

Live 2012
London Symphony Orchestra
London Philharmonic Choir; London Symphony Chorus
Barry Banks (tenor)
LSO Live; Alto [94:08]

Colin Davis’ first account of the Requiem has for over half a century been the reference recording for many although I think even its most devoted adherents would concede that it is not perfect and one must watch out for the over-reverential “sacred cow” phenomenon. Nonetheless, the moment you start listening to this, you realise it has a special atmosphere; there is a kind of momentum and intensity to Davis’ direction that negates any suggestion of drag, despite what ostensibly look like cautious speeds.

It has been issued as an SACD by Pentatone, but I listen to the conventional CD. There is some slight residual hiss but the engineering is still excellent, combining real depth of sound with clarity; I am more bothered by the fact that individual voices stand out in the tenor section – but they sing well, so it’s not troublesome. The basses at the start of the Dies irae growl menacingly and Davis’ sense of proportionality and control mean that the climaxes really deliver- the timpani are absolutely monumental, even if they do somewhat mask the singers. Despite its being recorded in Westminster Cathedral, I would not say that the acoustic is a spacious as, say, Abravanel, Bernstein or Nelson, but there is no sense of it feeling cramped and Davis’ positively dwarfs accounts by such as Barenboim, Shaw, Gardner eta l (see below). After the barrage of the Last Judgement, the Quid sum miser is delicately negotiated but there are still a few obtrusive, individual tenors and the basses growl a bit. The sopranos are angelic throughout. The pounding Lacrymosa is a tad elephantine and there is no doubt in my mind that tenor Ronald Dowd is too operatically emphatic in his solo and is husky and constricted of tone, but niggling, minor flaws notwithstanding, I understand the loyalty to this recording. For me, neither of Davis’ subsequent recordings below really challenges that old classic.

The 1994 recording was made from a performance to commemorate the dreadful destruction of Dresden in 1945 and is reviewed here by Dan Morgan; he rightly observes that it is cut from the same cloth as the earlier account and is a worthy and moving experience, but is not quite as effective at several points, either sonically or aesthetically. It is in fact a very slightly paler, less intense counterpart to the LSO account; it is further vitiated by some audience noise, the vocalisation which became an unwelcome and all-too-audible trademark of Sir Colin’s conducting as he aged and a wobbly tenor soloist whom, to put it frankly, I find intolerable, whereas Dan more politely characterises his voice as “inclined to spread under pressure”.

I am sure to have been present must have been very moving and would serve as a precious souvenir to anyone who attended, but in effect there is no reason to prefer it to the earlier classic.

43 years after his Philips recording, Davis directed the live LSO performance in St Paul’s Cathedral, his slowest at 94 minutes. My colleague John Quinn thought highly of it; please read his review for a detailed analysis of its many merits and a comparison with the 1969 recording. Coincidentally, it served as a tribute to the conductor who died in the same week as it was posted.

I am slightly less enthused, especially as virtually the first thing I hear is the conductor’s grunts and groans, and to my ears the LSO sound engineers are less successful in finding the right balance than those who supervised John Nelson’s 2019 recording in the same venue (see below); it all sounds too distanced and removed for me, although I readily accept John’s point that what we have here is probably a more realistic reflection of the concert experience, whereas the Philips engineers must have compensated for the cavernous acoustic of Westminster Cathedral by placing the microphones closer to the performers and I prefer the brighter result. Conversely, I differ from John in preferring the placement, the timbre and delivery of Barry Banks - a tenor I admire – to Ronald Dowd’s contribution.

You may sample all three accounts on YouTube to help you decide your preference – but I think if you want Davis conducting, the choice is clearly between the earliest and last recordings. Both are available very cheaply, so…

* * *

Maurice de Abravanel, 1969
Utah Symphony Choir & Orchestra
Charles Bressler (tenor)
Brilliant; Vanguard [81:28]

I have great respect for Abravanel’s output of large-scale works with this orchestra, especially in Mahler, and despite its age, this recording faithfully reproduces the famous acoustic of the Salt Lake (aka “Mormon”) Tabernacle. The performance begins almost reticently but Abravanel builds magnificently until the attack and amplitude of the choir in the Dies irae are overwhelming. The stereo separation for the four brass bands is superb; this was originally a 4-channel analogue recording and a technical triumph despite a certain brittleness and incipient distortion in the sound, plus a bit of background ambient rumble. I do not know how big Abravanel’s forces were but they sound huge here and one thing’s for sure: they didn’t skimp. The quality of singing and ensemble is very high, too; the tenors are fearless in the Lacrymosa/Lacrimosa (take your pick; both variants are permissible and recordings seem to choose a spelling at random) and their co-singers follow their example, singing con gusto – and the first time I heard the blaring brass interjections through headphones from what sounded variously like the four corners of the room I felt as if they had nearly burst my eardrums – you have been warned. Tenor soloist Charles Bressler is faintly tremulous but secure and sweet-toned, sounding suitably rapt, and the ensuing “Hosanna” is rapturous – it can be something of an anticlimax. The concluding Agnus Dei, too, here achieves an ethereal quality which sometimes escapes its interpreters.

I have no hesitation in placing this alongside my favourites even if it cannot match the best modern digital recordings. You can acquire it very cheaply on the Brilliant label paired with a fine Fauré Requiem or in the CD issue from Vanguard Classics, by whom it was originally recorded. (There are also an audio-only DVD and an SACD - but ensure you buy the 2004 version of the latter, as apparently the previous issue was botched and fuzzy.)

Leonard Bernstein, 1975
Orchestre Philharmonique et Chœurs de Radio France; Orchestre National de France
Stuart Burrows (tenor)
Sony [87:07]

This is a typically grand and spacious account from Bernstein, ever the man for emotive excess, both in terms of conception and soundscape, being recorded in Les Invalides and stretching to 87 minutes – admittedly not as long as any of Colin Davis’ three recordings but still occasionally bordering on the lethargic, especially given Bernstein’s penchant for pregnant pauses. That lends a gravitas to proceedings but also accentuates the tenors’ struggles with maintaining tone in long phrases and there are moments where the performances flirts with stasis – or, to put it more prosaically, on first playing, I actually glanced at my CD player to see if had stopped. That mantra-like affect of Bernstein’s interpretation keeps reminding me of Górecki’s Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, which I am not sure is entirely desirable…

There are of course still passages of great drama: the quadruple brass-band outburst is stirring - but then the male choir and even the brass themselves are a bit lost in the thunderous cacophony of that very reverberant acoustic. The effect is impressive but details are lost. On the other hand, nobody has such weird, reedy clarinet as in the Quid sum miser here and the Rex tremendae is, well…tremendous.

This recording has its peculiarities and isn’t a first choice, but I still greatly enjoy it, especially as the elegant and mellifluous soloist is Stuart Burrows, one of my favourite tenors in this work; his alternately plaintive then plangent sound is especially suited to the sentiments of the Sanctus, as he moves from a sweet falsetto in the first solo section to full-voiced singing in the second, and he can cope with Bernstein’s leisurely tempo.

Lorin Maazel, 1978
The Cleveland Orchestra & Chorus
Kenneth Riegel (tenor)
Decca [83:17]

Maazel was many things but rarely a dull conductor – yet the opening of this recording, with its flaccid phrasing and oddly squeaked soprano entry, does not suggest much investment in the potential frisson of this music. This sense of disengagement is intensified by the distant, muddy sound and an under-sized choir - and when the tenors execute their first high A at 5:38 they sound both strained and tentative. This performance simply never takes off; one hopes after a lacklustre opening Kyrie that the Dies irae will fare better – yet somehow it sounds so much slower and draggier than its actual timing would suggest. How is it possible just to go through the motions with such music? The sopranos continue with their thin piping and the gentlemen mutter; the brass bands are a total wash-out - though at least the men then wake up a bit. To cap it all, I do not like Kenneth Riegel’s weird tonal quality and over-wide vibrato.

I would never have believed it, but Maazel achieves the almost impossible feat of directing forces we know to be of the highest quality to create a thoroughly boring account. This is a total dud.

Daniel Barenboim, 1979
Orchestre et Chœur de Paris
Plácido Domingo (tenor)
Deutsche Grammophon [88:47]

These DG Galleria issues are generally so reliable and rewarding and this is no exception. I am by no means uncritical of Barenboim as a conductor but he clearly loves Berlioz and has recorded some enduring versions of his music. However, I have heard both more forward and immediate recordings and slightly less strained tenors in this music. This is a perfectly competent but slightly bland account; there is nothing about it to get the blood unduly racing yet it is well executed. Exactly the same is true of Domingo’s contribution: roles with a high-lying tessitura were never his forte but he is young and sappy-voiced here – very warm and prepared to sing out in full-voiced lower register and I really like the result - but I cannot say that I hear much emotional engagement in his straightforward singing.

This is a thoroughly enjoyable, but doesn’t merit “most recommendable” status.

Robert Shaw, 1984
Atlanta Symphony Orchestra & Chorus
John Aler (tenor)
Telarc [83:28]

I don’t hear much tension or mystery in this account; the choral singing is sweet and slack, completely without attack – and coming straight to this from listening to the vintage Scherchen only intensified that impression; the very discipline of the choir works against thrills. Apart from Shaw being too restrained and controlled, the sound itself is rather soft-edged and muted; everything is too distanced and words are indistinct. The swirling strings preceding “Quantus tremor est futurus” are a complete non-event.

The bright spot for me is John Aler’s contribution; I love the combination of bright penetrating tone and sweetness in his timbre. I would love to have heard him in a more animated recording.

While I accept that Berlioz’s Requiem is not all slam-bam – indeed, only three of the ten movements really require that and there is much of delicacy in the other seven – the excitement has to be there when the music requires it, and this fails dismally to generate it.

Eliahu Inbal, 1988
Radio-Sinfonie-Orchester Frankfurt
Chor des NDR Hamburg; Konzervereinigung ORF-Chor
Keith Lewis (tenor)
Brilliant; Denon [83:31]

Back in 2006, on BBC Radio 3’s ‘Building a Library’, Jeremy Summerly declared this to be the best recording of Berlioz’ Requiem – but then, he also endorsed Roger Norrington’s SACD recording…

Anyway, I have certainly always loved it ever since I heard it as part of the equally recommendable bargain box set of Berlioz on the Brilliant label - and it is now available separately. The sound is first-rate and the acoustic has just the right balance between a degree of resonance suggesting a grand space and enough detail to avoid mushiness. I also like how the basses are properly prominent, with more heft in low notes than some more choirs, as often the tenor section over-dominates the sound-picture, having such a prominent role – but nor do the tenors here sound strained, either, managing their sustained top As and Bs well – as at the start of the Lacrimosa – most impressive. All this became more apparent to me as I listened to this recording directly after the Bernstein version, which is sonically more compromised.

Inbal maintains a dignified yet propulsive beat until a Dies Irae which is, I think, among the most thrilling and imposing of any of the versions here. He also brings greater attack and more propulsion to the fast sections of the Rex tremendae and the pounding passages of the Lacrimosa than any other conductor. Finally, he finds great tenderness and repose in the quiet Quarens me without the risk of dragging as Bernstein does. (I must remark, however, on an increasingly prevalent bugbear of conductors singing along audibly, as Inbal does intermittently with the tenors but an octave lower – and his vocalising is especially irritating at the start of the Offertorium.)

Tenor Keith Lewis’ contribution is smooth and mellifluous, very similar to Stuart Burrows’ but in better sound.

James Levine, 1989
Berliner Philharmoniker
Luciano Pavarotti (tenor)
Deutsche Grammophon [84:05]

I have long enjoyed this recording but re-acquaintance with it raises just a few minor doubts, which I was not expecting. The Jesus-Christus-Kirche was always the ideal venue for the BPO and Karajan - who would die two months after this recording was made – to record symphonic music but here it is at first just slightly too clean and clear, lacking the touch of reverberance suggesting a church venue – even though, of course, that is exactly what it was. I would also suggest that the Ernst-Senff-Chor sounds too few compared with the massive body of sound Berlioz wanted. Of course, both those factors permit greater detail but the reduction in sonic and numeric scale results in some diminution of the frisson the listener should experience at the climaxes; there is a touch of the chamber choir about this performance. Having said that, the Dies irae is still grand when the brass are properly distanced and Levine’s forces raise their game to make an unholy row – hardly an apt term I know – at the great outburst on “Judex ergo” ten minutes in, and I am reassured. I could still do without “qvem” in a French mass, but let that pass. The tenors are exceptionally pure in timbre and very homogeneous, and the bass contingent is resonant, even if I could still do with a few more voices to add depth. The Lacrimosa goes especially well, the sopranos taking the opportunity to show that they, too, can produce and hold a lovely, rounded tone and even the recording here seems to acquire more ambience.

A great bonus is the unashamedly operatic contribution of Luciano Pavarotti in best form, singing his solos full voice as effortlessly and sweetly as any tenor and bringing a touch of Mediterranean sunshine and glamour to the work – after all, this section of the Mass is laudatory and celebratory – and again, the sopranos are angelic. Levine directs with his customary drive and vigour. In the end, my affection for this recording is slightly tempered by my desire for a little more weight and atmosphere but it is still very fine.

Seiji Ozawa, 1993
Boston Symphony Orchestra
Tanglewood Festival Chorus
Vinson Cole (tenor)
RCA [76:03]

I am generally a big fan of Ozawa in Berlioz – his Roméo et Juliette and La damnation de Faust are top recommendations -and the playing of the BSO here is so beautiful. The choir sounds slightly underpowered, however; the Dies irae is surprisingly low-key, despite prominent timpani and a decent chorus with plenty of heft – it just doesn’t take off and all sounds too polite. This perhaps something to do with the sound-engineering, which keeps everything well distanced and smoothed out, without sufficient dynamic contrast. This was a concert hall recording whereas some of the most successful recordings use a real ecclesiastical venue but I don’t think we can blame that for the relative failure of this recording as, for example, Pappano and his RCO engineers get superb results from the most recording in the Concertgebouw. Ozawa’s speeds are such that it trips along without suggesting much weight; on the other hand, Vinson Cole is rather soupy in his delivery, using excessive portamento which sounds cautious and sentimental - although his essential tone is pleasing and the delicacy of his repeat verse is engaging. Dynamic contrasts are too equalised for Berlioz’ music to make the impact of which it is capable.

We can do better.

Charles Dutoit, 1997
L'Orchestre Symphonique et Chœur de Montreal
de L'Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal
John Mark Ainsley (tenor)
Decca [84:31]

I do not think that Maestro Dutoit and Hector Berlioz are kindred spirits. I pair this with Robert Shaw’s 1984 recording above, in that the sound is rather soft-edged and it is a generally limp account, lacking drama. It is often beautifully played and sung; soloist John Mark Ainsley sings sweetly and steadily, too, but there is rather to much of a falsetto mix in his high notes so he sounds feminine and the languorousness of his delivery is accentuated by Dutoit’s slow speeds. This is a “kinder, gentler” requiem in which all shall be well – but you cannot play down the anguish of Berlioz’ writing to this extent and still claim to be delivering its spirit. The brass sound as if they are summoning us to Sunday roast dinner, not to the Last Judgement. This is a plodding, reverential Requiem and I don’t like it.

Paul McCreesh 2010
Wroclaw Philharmonic Choir and Orchestra
Gabrieli Players and Consort
Chetham’s School of Music Symphonic Brass Ensemble
Robert Murray (tenor)
Signum Classics [88:42]

This “period-informed” recording was triply reviewed by MusicWeb colleagues John Quinn, Simon Thompson and Dan Morgan shortly after its release and was a Recording of the Month; as such, I do not need to belabour points already well made. John’s review, in particular, provides detail regarding how and to what degree the performance may be regarded as historically aware. Apart from the authentic French pronunciation of the Latin, I would not say that has any huge or immediately perceptible effect on the soundscape but the scale of the performance, replicating the original in accordance with Berlioz’ wishes, is certainly impressive and a huge improvement over recordings by Morlot and Gardner below – this is the real deal. The choir is excellent; things like the forte F sharp on “luceat” at 8:08 come through like a shaft of sunlight, an effect enhanced by the pronunciation of the French “u”. The climax of the Dies irae is thunderous but almost inevitably a bit blurred in the very resonant church acoustic – not that it much matters, it is so overwhelming. Like Dan, I think McCreesh rushes sections of the Rex tremendae somewhat, but it’s exciting. The Quarens me best demonstrates the virtuosity of the choir, which sings here unaccompanied with ethereal tenderness, and I love the contrasting swagger of the ensuing Lacrimosa – but is McCreesh overdoing that roistering, rollicking 9/8? Maybe not. I am less taken by the tenor soloist here, who is rather effete and under-powered with an over-plangent, bleating vibrato – a pity.

This is a superb account and will disappoint no-one but just a few small factors such as my occasional preference for different tempi, a less washy acoustic and a better soloist mean that I place it high but do not make it my top choice.

Ludovic Morlot, live 2017
Seattle Symphony
Seattle Symphony Chorale
Kenneth Tarver (tenor)
Seattle Symphony Media [75:59]

Dan Morgan reviewed this in 2018, describing it as one of two “intermittently exciting performances that fall far short of the best; good rather than exceptional sound.” Yet he is also right that it starts promisingly - swiftly, yes, but with a firm tread and purpose preferable to some of the more listless accounts reviewed here. The acoustic matches this urgency, in that is quite crisp and clear – far from cramped, but hardly suggestive of a grand ecclesiastical space. The choir has considerable heft and depth, too, so in many ways the right elements are in place. Nevertheless, the listener gradually – if not soon – becomes aware that Morlot’s propulsion is bordering on haste and that dignity central to an evocation of la gloire is being sacrificed to sensation. In the end, a performance around fifteen minutes faster than any of Davis’ three recordings lets too many key moments pass unexamined. Having said that, despite the hurry, the “Tuba mirum” is impressive as sheer sound, even if magic and mystery are in short supply; it is more relentless than supernal. The rollicking 9/8 Lacrimosa, too, is boisterous but not…demonic, as it is in some recordings, despite some good, thundering timpani. However, the blend and tonal warmth and purity of the choir can be very pleasing, particularly in the a cappella Quarens me. I love Kenneth Tarver’s tenor but he is recorded far too close and does not actually inject the words he is singing with any specific meaning; he could be the town crier announcing the opening of the church fete for all that he unfeelingly belts out the sacred text. Morlot slows to a more conventional timing for the Agnus Dei and also finds some poetry in the concluding “Amens” but both of those developments are too little too late.

To employ a hoary but useful cliché, this recording in comparison with my favourites aptly illustrates the old aphorism, “The best is the enemy of the good.”

Edward Gardner, live 2018
Bergen Filharmoniske Orkester
Choir of Collegium Musicum; Edvard Grieg Kor; Bergen Philharmonic Choir Bror Magnus Tødenes (tenor)
Chandos [80:54]

John Quinn (review) and Dan Morgan (review) both summarise their responses to this recording with the damning word “disappointing”; in Dan’s words, it “lacks scale, character or ambition; disappointing sound, too.”. They agree that it is deficient in terms of impact, venue and even engineering and there is little point in my elaborating upon their assessments, as I agree with them that this is oddly miniaturised, especially in the context of my having included so many great performances in this survey, and I refer you to their reviews for more detail. I would only add that I concur: abandoning the excellent tenor in the car park for his solo was not fair to him…

John Nelson, live 2019
Philharmonia Choir & Orchestra
London Philharmonic Choir
Michael Spyres (tenor)
Erato Warner Classics [81:35]

This was a live performance in St Paul’s Cathedral to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the composer’s death. A striking cover photo shows Nelson’s massed forces in the magnificent setting and the resonant acoustic confirms and enhances that sense of space. The trade-off is always the same in such circumstances: loss of detail and difficulties in co-ordination in favour of grandeur and atmosphere and in many ways, it is worth it – at least here it is; the sound engineers did a fine job in finding the right balances and every component comes through successfully – especially the sonorous basses of the combined choirs and the double basses of the orchestra. Singers are almost invariably assisted by such an acoustic and the sopranos soar angelically into the vault. True, consonants are lost but the thunderous racket generated by the brass bands and orchestral and choral tutti at the climaxes of the Dies irae is stunning; I suspect that in many ways a recording provides a better experience than sitting in the audience – which is silent throughout, even if there is a bit of unavoidable “ambient noise” - especially if you were in an aisle. Michael Spyres sings well enough, in a slightly pulsing, strenuous, full-voiced style without the seraphic sweetness of some rivals – he does not enchant me as Aler, Burrows, Pavarotti et al can and do.

It would be quite unreasonable to expect a performance under these circumstances to provide interpretative subtleties – just keeping it all together was a feat in itself but Nelson’s tempos and rhythms are ideal, even if the “Hosanna” fugue lumbers somewhat – nor would I recommend it as a first-choice recording, but it is a fine and impressive souvenir of a great occasion and I want it as a supplement. I was not expecting to be so taken by this – but there it is; I find this transports me to a numinous place. (The CD comes with a bonus DVD of the event.) The caveat? It’s expensive – but you can hear it on YouTube.

Sir Antonio Pappano, live 2019
Concertgebouw Orkest
Coro Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia
Javier Camarena (tenor)
RCO Live [83:41]

It was listening to this latest set which prompted this survey, so to keep perspective, I auditioned every other recording here before finally returning to it to see if I still liked it as much after having heard the best of the rest.

Please refer to the two reviews linked in my introduction, which have covered its many merits; I would only say that on relistening, I was newly struck by the depth and clarity of the sound, even listening to it on conventional equipment rather than as a SACD; it makes some earlier recordings sound mushy and consequently the choir can make more impact as all layers of the vocal spectrum are revealed. The tenors are indeed particularly heroic but the basses have a heft we associate with Italian opera and every section delivers. Despite the abandon of the singing, ensemble is remarkably precise and when the whole chorus opens up the sound is spectacular – and let’s not forget the sonority of the great orchestra here. Pappano finds both the majesty and the searing drama of the work and makes me think that there is more than a touch of the Dies Irae in Howard Shore’s battle music for the Lord of The Rings. His is surely his best recording yet and will undoubtedly feature in our Recordings of the Year 2022.

Although we can safely discount a few underwhelming versions by Maazel, Shaw, Ozawa, Dutoit and Gardner, we are otherwise fortunate to have so many excellent recordings of a work which is both a nightmare and a privilege to perform and record, especially given the sheer cost and the logistical complications involved in any such enterprise. Ultimately, I found it difficult to separate several front-runners.

I have already expatiated on the importance I attach to the quality of the tenor soloist. Obviously that is only one criterion among many but it can be a discriminator in a hierarchy of preferences; the depth and balance of the recorded sound must assume a supremacy, too – but then we must consider coordination and homogeneity of ensemble – and so it goes.

I acknowledge the manifest merits Davis’ first version and think it is the best of his three recordings while still admiring the last one. However, as it was not my first experience of the work, I do not share the sentimental attachment many have to it, and being as objective as I can, I think it has been surpassed aesthetically and technically by subsequent recordings. The magnificent digital sound given to Inbal and Pappano trumps earlier stereo recordings and my primary recommendations must reflect the importance of the venue and sound engineering in this work. Nonetheless, I cannot abandon my affection for Munch and, above all, the Abravanel recording, while the Nelsons recording is a different experience again. In the final analysis, the most recent Pappano issue is even more impressive than Inbal’s simply from an auditory point of view. On the other hand, I marginally prefer Inbal’s tenor soloist and find it hard to choose between them - but do yourself a favour and get a copy of the Abravanel as a supplement – you won’t regret it.

Inbal 1988
Pappano 2019*
Abravanel 1969

* First choice

Ralph Moore

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