Sunday 22 April 2012

Berlioz - Grande Messe des Morts

Hector Berlioz - Grande Messe des Morts (1837)
Robert Murray (tenor)
Gabrieli Players
Wroclaw Philharmonic Orchestra
Chetham's School of Music Symphonic Brass Ensemble
Gabrieli Consirt
Wroclaw Philharmonic Choir
Paul McCreesh (conductor)
Winged Lion Records

Berlioz's Grande Messe des Morts is in many ways a rather austere work. That might seem an odd way of referring to a piece written for such extravagant forces. But Berlioz's intention was to work with large blocks of sound, suitable for filling a huge church building. So for much of the time, the musical material itself is austerely unfussy as Berlioz evokes a great building in sound. Berlioz the orchestrator understood that to make a piece work in such a large acoustic, the piece couldn't be too much busy and fussy; this ties in aptly with the piece being a requiem mass.

Berlioz was writing at a time when large scale performances, frequently outdoor, were rather popular. His Symphonie Funebre et Triomphale was written for such an occasion and has a similar extravagance in its use of forces.

By including his 4 extra brass bands and 16  timpani, Berlioz had a very definite end in mind, evoking the last trumpet. He was scathing about earlier settings of the Dies Irae which failed to render the Day of Judgement in a suitable terrible manner. But other parts of the mass are less explosive, more neo-classically severe and include some fine unaccompanied passages. And as a result they demand great control from the performers, particularly the singers. The opening Introit and Kyrie for instance needs the focus and precision associated with smaller forces, singers must exercise control.

On this disc from Paul McCreesh's Winged Lion label (recorded in 2010 and released late last year), McCreesh took the calculated risk of combining English forces from the Gabrieli Consort and Players with Polish ones from the Wroclaw Cantans festival. McCreesh is the director of the festival and this disc is the first of what one hopes will be many made in collaboration between the festival and the Gabrieli Consort.

Essentially the main orchestra is Polish, the Wroclaw Philharmonic Orchestra, whilst the extra brass and timpani are from the UK, comprising the Gabrieli Players and players from Cheetham's School of Music. The singers are a mixture of Polish, the Wroclaw Philharmonic Choir, and the Gabrieli Consort. McCreesh, in his booklet notes, comments on the difficulties of combining singers from two very different traditions and how the fact that they had to sing the Latin text in accordance with 19th century French pronunciation gave the singers a joint goal to struggle towards (and no doubt something to grumble about together).

The instrumentalists are inevitably a mixture of period and modern with emphasis on use period brass and timpani where the sound has changed most. Without being to obsessive, it seemed to me that the strings were using relatively limited and the result is a very coherent and pleasing sound. One which recognises that Berlioz would not have intended his string parts to be coated in a luxuriant wash of vibrato. This means that some of Berlioz's effects are quite magical, particularly the quieter moments.

The effect of the multiple brass choirs coming in during the Dies Irae is simply stunning. It cleans our ears, the way that John Eliot Gardiner's performances of Les Troyens, using instruments of Berlioz's own day, did. Berlioz's vision of a shattering Tuba mirum is fully realised.

The choristers certainly do satisfy the requirements stated earlier. Whilst the big moments are full and overwhelming, moments like the Introit and Kyrie are performed with fine control and quiet intensity. McCreesh has total control of his forces and they are all focussed on his ends, so that whilst the big moments impress, the small gestures like the Quid sum miser are beautifully done, with gorgeously expressive instrumental playing complimenting the finely controlled singing. The performance the Offertory, with the fractured phrases in the orchestra and the monotone in the choir, brings echoes both of the Symphonie Fantastique and Romeo et Juliette; here the clarity of playing and the textures is really brought home.

Robert Murray is the fine tenor soloist is the Sanctus, a nicely controlled line contributing to Berlioz's ravishing textures, here finely captured.

This is a performance of the Requiem without the late 19th/early 20th century gloss which is typically brought to this music. Perhaps it will not quite be to everyone's taste, but it is an incredible achievement and I can't imagine anyone not responding to it.

The 2 CD set comes in a fold out book with a luridly pink cover. There is an extensive article detailing the background to the performance and the decisions taken about what forces to use, plus text and translations. Turn the book over and everything is repeated, in Polish in McCreesh's own translations. There are also pictures of the assembled forces recording in Mary Magdalene Church, Wroclaw.

I have to confess that I had the rather crazy thought that it might have been fun to hear the same forces performing the Requiem's 'companion piece', Walton's Belshazzar's Feast. (Walton included the extra brass bands in Belshazzar at the suggestion of Sir Thomas Beecham who was conducting the Berlioz Requiem at the same Leeds Festival and so the extra brass players would be on hand).

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