Wednesday 27 June 2012

Shock and Awe - Berlioz Requiem in St. Pauls

London Symphony Orchestra live at St. Paul's Cathedral
A symphonic ode originally performed by four orchestras, one in each corner of Les Invalides. No, its not a newly discovered piece by Berlioz, but one by his teacher Le Sueur. Early 19th century France was full of out door,  massed performances and religious services on a vast scale, they celebrated the idea that the people assembled represented the Nation. Nowadays Berlioz's Grande Messe des morts is rather regarded as a sign of the composer's distinctive, curious genius and perhaps his tendency to self-dramatisation,  in fact its huge forces link it to these previous works by such composers as Mehul, Gossec, le Sueur and Cherubini. But nowadays getting the forces together for Berlioz's Requiem is quite a feat in itself, never mind finding a suitable location. And it was something of a coup for the City of London Festival to have two performances of the work conducted by Sir Colin Davis, the conductor most associated with the composer's work. The performances were of course in St. Paul's Cathedral and we attended the second one, on 26 June.

Davis conducted the London Symphony Orchestra with the combined  London Symphony Chorus and  London Philharmonic Choir. The tenor soloist in the Sanctus was Barry Banks. The choirs and orchestra were placed under the dome, with extra brass ensembles high up in the clerestory. Berlioz requested that the brass ensembles be placed at the four corners of the performing area, but conductors nowadays tend to take advantage of whatever drama the venue gives them. And having your brass players perched up high in St. Paul's certainly adds drama. In fact, there was one extra performer in the mix, that was the cathedral itself. The building's long reverberation and strange way of reflecting odd bits of sound lent the performance a strangely quality all of its own, as if the music had undergone some mixing by a perverse DJ.

Though Berlioz uses huge forces, he uses them sparingly tending to create large scale, architectonic, blocks of sound. What came over from the performance was the sense of space that Berlioz creates, and his remarkable sonic ear; combining flutes, double basses and the choir, or simply having the choir accompanied by a solo cor anglais. And the choral writing is often in great blocks too, whether they be loud ones or soft ones. Berlioz is intending to dramatise the text, he is aiming for shock and awe. The LPC and LSC were on good form and many of the quiet passages had a feeling of awe, perhaps not quite the terror that Berlioz was aiming for, but still some wonderful hushed tones.

The orchestra, playing for their distinguished  president and former chief conductor, were also in fine form, giving beautiful shape to Berlioz's sometimes individual lines. Davis, conducting in an apparently relaxed and laid back style, shaped the music so that Berlioz's distinctive genius came into focus and the cathedral acoustic somehow made sense. Not that there weren't problems, there were one or two faster passages which lacked clarity in the chorus, moments of poor ensemble and of course, the famously loud sections with the extra brass were a glorious mess.

Whilst putting the brass up in clerestory added drama, it also meant that the cathedral's acoustic came fully into force and from where we were sitting in the south transept, we got strange distortions of sound with different phrases appearing at different times. Presumably there were seats from which everything coalesced into a single, coherent whole. But even so, the sound of 10 timpani players and 30 brass players filling the dome of St. Paul's with sound was tremendous, here really was the last trumpet!

Part of the magic of this performance was the way Davis created a single whole, but ensured each section was distinctive so that the loud Tuba Mirum was followed by hushed, quiet reflective passages. As Berlioz intended, this was a performance of extremes.

Barry Banks sang the short, but important, tenor solo with a beautifully intense feeling of line.

Listening to the work live for the first time, it made me admire even more the recent recording conducted by Paul McCreesh which, recorded in a large church in Wroclaw, has an acoustic image which manages to combine atmosphere and clarity, and retains the drama of the large scale sections.

The performance was being recorded for broadcast live on Radio 3, and also for the LSO. Presumably they are hoping to release it on LSO Live. It would be interesting to hear the recording, not just to see whether the recorded image is more coherent than the one we heard live, but also to see whether the engineers managed to capture the sheer drama and scale of this event in St. Paul's.

It might sound funny, after all this talk of drama and loudness, but the performance was also enormously contemplative. Yes, there were moments of truly high drama the like of which I am rarely going to equal again, but Davis's genius was to combine these into a whole which created a real response to the entire text of the mass. This wasn't mere barnstorming, but a real Romantic response to the drama and intensity of the text.

One final thought. The work was written, not as a concert piece, but as a requiem mass. So isn't it about time that we heard it in context. How about a performance in Westminster Cathedral as part of a sung Latin requiem mass. Now that really would be something, imagine hearing Berlioz's Sanctus in the middle of the consecration.

See our Festival pages:
Buxton Festival 2012
Opera Holland Park 2012
Grange Park Opera 2012
City of London Festival 2012

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