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Music review: Berlioz’s Requiem

22 March 2019

Roderic Dunnett hears Berlioz’s Requiem, 150 years after the death of its composer


ONE goes with some trepidation to hear Berlioz’s Requiem, even on so splendid and deserving an occasion as here: a celebration of the exact date of the 150th anniversary of the composer’s death (in March 1869), in surely a most appropriate setting, beneath the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral.

The very element that has excited listeners since the work was first heard in 1837 can prove a drawback: a stunning array of brass, positioned (as here) in a kind of quadrilateral arrangement, can sometimes overwhelm the forces of its massed choir, achieved here by uniting the Philharmonia Chorus with the London Philharmonic Choir into one huge choral presence.

The orchestra that Berlioz deployed, embracing not merely a doubling of woodwind and brass, but almost a quadrupling thereof, was simply massive, in part because it imitated the massive works of Berlioz’s predecessors, composers of the revolutionary and post-Napoleonic era; and especially because the Requiem was intended for a large-scale civic and military celebration such as France then relished. Such events were traditionally meant to be on a grand scale — Berlioz himself envisaged “five or six hundred performers” for the first outing at Les Invalides, the sprawling Baroque complex erected by Louis XIV. On that sort of an occasion, big noises were inevitably on the menu.

All the more of a surprise, then — and in ways an achievement — that the American conductor John Nelson elected to present a performance that was so surprisingly, even impressively, restrained. There is an element of that in the score itself, in that even the Dies Irae is treated to a rather gentle exposition, unlike, say, in Mozart’s or Verdi’s approach. But here the expansive whole, conducted rather intimately without a baton, was kept under a sure, tight control. This was not the usual blasting one encounters in this, and indeed other, Berlioz. The score was allowed to peer through, even to replace, the bombast.

The work is listed in Berlioz’s output as his Opus No. 4. This is deceptive, for many of his well-known works — the Overtures, the Symphonie Fantastique, the solo cantatas, indeed his first attempt at a Messe Solennelle, from which parts were annexed to the present work — predated it by some years. In some respects — though not, it should be said, the clarity of the words, which in such large works tend to be obfuscated — the contrapuntal lines were allowed to peer through without being constantly swamped.

The striking demerit is that, once that veneer of brass overlay recedes, without the resplendent (or tiresome) blasts and booms domineering, the actual substance of the piece comes across as disappointing, even in places vapid: fine choral gestures, yes — but only intermittently the more intricate instrumental detail (two cor anglais were an exception, and at one stage a wondrous effect achieved by entwining flutes). There are few of the kind of desirable melodies that Berlioz serves up elsewhere. One salient descending motif does bring a strong, and apt, feeling of plangency, and one welcomed its periodic return. One tiny motif that features a rising semitone, alternated with a tone, not only maintains this poignancy, but is especially characteristic of Berlioz.

Yet things stood out. The strikingly high chorus tenors’ line in the opening passage; several alluring moments when Berlioz permits the choir, sometimes all four voices, sometimes just the lower parts, to sing minimally accompanied; certain almost instantaneous surges, and equally rapid diminuendi, all admirably achieved here. In the section “Quid sum miser”, following an affecting sopranos’ lead, once again the loud passages were carefully held back by Nelson, so that their usual oppressiveness was advantageously reduced. Indeed, a feeling of mystery enveloped this section, and the music benefited.

The sound of the lowest brass, especially an awsomely exposed bass trombone, feels oddly akin to the Shofar (or Jewish ram’s horn). The Offertorium, a choral, not (as often) a solo movement, has a plaintive feel, contradicted by some unexpectedly scurrying woodwind; its pianissimo conclusion was especially well-managed. The unusual marriage of flutes and trombone in the Hostias, which forms a separate section, was captivating.

But the most defining moment came with the Sanctus, allotted to an intense tenor solo (sung here with great expression by the Missouri-born American tenor Michael Spyres). Berlioz reserves one piece of fugal writing for the repeated Osannas, the reappearance of which elicited the most magical dying echo, perhaps the only such moment, from the St Paul’s acoustic.

Although we here a foretaste of Berlioz’s most extended opera, Les Troyens, it is the final Agnus Dei that gives just a hint of the characteristics of this composer which Wagner admired. Berlioz’s influence, and originality, inspire much of the music of the late 19th century. After 150 years, is admired, of course, in his own right; but doubly so because of that.

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