Grande messe des morts, LSO

Irrespective of that hindsight, I found it at the time a magnificent,
unforgettable performance, as indeed I
wrote, or rather raved
, at the time. Life goes on, however, even when it
comes to requiem masses. This performance was perhaps never going to live up to
the extraordinary nature of that occasion; not only was the greatest Berlioz
conductor of all time delivering his valedictory thoughts on the piece, but for
once, Wren’s cathedral proved a preferable venue. The Royal Festival Hall was
anything but ideal; I could not help but wondering whether a trip, say, to
Westminster Cathedral would not have been a good idea. (The problem was not
simply a matter of the acoustic, as I shall try to argue below.) Those factors
notwithstanding, however, this was in most respects an excellent performance,
one which will have doubtless introduced a good few new listeners to this
singular work.

The acoustical difference announced itself immediately, with greater
orchestral and, perhaps most strikingly, choral clarity. This could almost have
been a different work. Performance standards, choral and orchestral, were
highly impressive throughout; indeed, just as in St Paul’s, there were no
conceivable grounds for complaint in that respect. The ‘Requiem aeternam’
and ‘Kyrie’ benefited from wonderful Philharmonia string playing,
especially the expressive vibrato employed and instrumental phrasing (doubtless
partly to be credited to Esa-Pekka Salonen too). It was expressive yet taut.
This first movement is perhaps not a terribly characteristic movement; the work
is arguably not the most characteristic of Berlioz’s úuvre either. Its roots
in earlier French music, most of it more or less entirely forgotten by
present-day audiences, came through, as did its peculiar novelty. A weird
instance of applause following this movement was not, I was grateful, to be

Cellos and double basses again made a fine impression at the opening of the
‘Dies irae’. Salonen here, as throughout, marshalled his forces very well.
Palpable tension as the brass players stood was not entirely fulfilled in
reality. I do not think it was any fault of the performance as such, but the
effect, despite its deafening, all-too-deafening volume, far too much from
where I was seated, paled besides the truer aural perspective and blended sound
offered under the St Paul’s dome. Matters were not improved by a telephone
ringing as the deafening brass ceased. (Do these people have no shame at all?)
Still, there was a very strong impression to be had of the work’s insanity.
There was an overwhelming sense of contrast in the following ‘Quid sum
miser’: not, quite rightly, repose, but supplication.

The ‘Rex tremendae’ then proved both excitable and exciting. However, it
proved a good example of another problem relating to the venue, though perhaps,
to a certain extent, to Salonen’s conception. (In truth, it is very difficult
to say what exactly was owed to what.) Part of the fascination of this work is
its secularism, the strange emptiness at the heart of the work, about which I
wrote when discussing the Davis performance. That gains meaning and a truly
disconcerting quality when performed not only in a building such as St
Paul’s, but also when conducted by a man whose religious and/or philosophical
questing is leading him truly to grapple with the difficulties presented by
such a work. Salonen was musically very impressive; Davis truly had one think,
and experience the implications of crises of faith.

There was relief to be felt thereafter from the a cappella
semi-chorus (actually much less than that: probably twenty voices or so) in the
‘Quaerens me’. It was possible to feel a connection with a much older
choral tradition, even if the sense of Palestrina were more apparent than
‘real’. Especially memorable was the beautiful halo of sound at the
conclusion: ‘Statuens in parte dextra’. The ‘Lacrymosa’ and ‘Domine,
Jesu Christe’ have texts I find well-nigh impossible to dissociate from
Mozart: my problem, I know. Or at least, it takes a performative wrench to have
me forget that greatest of all Requiem settings. Here, Berlioz’s oddness came
across strongly, not least the blazing conclusion to the first of the two
movements. But it was only really in the second that the anxiety to what is
after all an imprecations registered in duly personal — both compositional
and theological — fashion.

The ‘Hostias’ benefited from nicely snarling trombones, as well as
markedly ‘white’ flutes — and, of course, excellent choral singing. As so
often, the ‘Sanctus’ was marred by a tremulous tenor, SÈbastien Droy, who
was at times somewhat constricted too. A brightly ‘secular’ Hosanna fugue
made its point — perhaps a little too strongly. However, the ‘Agnus Dei’
was very impressive, bringing due symmetry with the opening movement.
Salonen’s control remained admirable, and there was again delectable menace
to the trombones and, more generally, to the bass line. Finally, there came
resolution of sorts, though I could not help thinking it more ‘musical’
then ‘theological’ — not so much because Berlioz cannot achieve the
latter variety, a point which is at least arguable, but because the performance
as a whole never truly engaged with theological issues in the first place.

Mark Berry

Cast and production information:

SÈbastien Droy (tenor); Philharmonia Voices (chorus master: Aidan
Oliver); Gloucester Choral Society (chorus master: Adrian Partington); Bristol
Choral Society (chorus master: Adrian Partington)/Esa-Pekka Salonen
(conductor). Royal Festival Hall, London, Thursday 25 September 2014.

image_description=Hector Berlioz [Source: Wikipedia]
product_title=Hector Berlioz: Grande messe des morts, op.5
product_by=A review by Mark Berry
product_id=Above: Hector Berlioz [Source: Wikipedia]