Friday 8 March 2019

A sincerity running through it: I chat to John Nelson about Berlioz' Requiem

John Nelson (Photo Gregory Massat)
John Nelson (Photo Gregory Massat)
Friday 8 March, 2019 is the 150th anniversary of the death of Berlioz, and commemorations include a performance of Berlioz' Grande messe des morts (Requiem) at St Paul's Cathedral in London with John Nelson conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra, the London Philharmonic Choir, the Philharmonia Chorus and soloist Michael Spyres. I was lucky enough to be able to catch up with John Nelson in a break from rehearsals to chat about Berlioz' Requiem and John's other plans for performances of Berlioz this year.

John Nelson (Photo Marco Borggreve)
John Nelson (Photo Marco Borggreve)
When discussing the work, John points out that Berlioz himself highly regarded it, saying towards the end of his life that if one of his works survived it would be that one, and John feels that it is a work which needs to be considered not just for the obvious grandeur but for its essence, the musical interpretation of the text.

With the enormous number of musicians involved in the large space of St Paul's Cathedral with the four bands in the rotunda, John agrees that the performance will indeed be impressive. The grandeur of the work matches that of St Paul's but acoustically the cathedral is not ideal though those sitting under the rotunda will get a good experience. But John is also after the textual meaning of the Requiem, whilst Berlioz was not religious, John feels that he wrote sincerely. He points out that Berlioz was from a Roman Catholic family and the memory of that is surely very present in the work. John finds a sincerity running through the entire piece.

The performance is being live streamed and will be recorded for DVD and for CD, by Warner Classics as part of John's on-going cycle of live Berlioz recordings the most recent of which was Les Troyens [see my review]. The idea for the performance arose after the performances of Les Troyens in Strasburg; to commemorate the 150th anniversary of Berlioz' death on the day in St Paul's, a venue which had been used for Sir Colin Davis' performance of the Requiem with the London Symphony Orchestra in 2012. A complex operation, yet it turned out to be possible; though only used as a concert hall infrequently, the cathedral was sympathetic to the performance and it proved possible to have Warner Classics record it and Medici TV live stream it. And the tenor Michael Spyres was free.

The acoustics at St Paul's Cathedral make recording a challenge and John feels lucky that the production team includes the sound engineer who worked on Colin Davis' live recording of Berlioz Requiem from St Paul's [on the LSO Live label], as well as the French engineer who has worked on all of John's other live Berlioz recordings.

Berlioz: Requiem - St Paul's Cathedral
For all the work's size, Berlioz was very exact in his specifications of the number of performers required for a performance of the Requiem, and John is pleased that the numbers they are using come pretty close to those of Berlioz; the choir will number 208 (Berlioz specified 210), whilst each section of strings will be two players less than Berlioz requested (so 10 bass players instead of 12).

This exactitude is matched by the detail in Berlioz's score, which John calls stunning. The work was written only a few years after the death of Beethoven (Berlioz wrote the Requiem in 1837, Beethoven died in 1827), yet John finds the minutiae of the markings in the score remarkable. He feels that Berlioz gives little room for interpretation, he knows what he wants and John feels obliged to follow and there are only a couple of places when John thinks that Berlioz misjudged matters.

Berlioz has been with John for a long time, ever since he left music college. John studied conducting at the Juilliard School with a French conducting teacher, who never once talked about Berlioz. When John graduated a friend from college, Matthew Epstein, suggested he listen to the then new recording of Berlioz Le Troyens conducted by Colin Davis and John found it stunning, 'he thought he had never listened to music before'. It turned out that the opera had never been done complete in America, so with the confidence of youth he and Epstein organised a performance of the complete, uncut Le Troyens at Carnegie Hall in 1972. John was in his early 30s. Two years later he was hired to assist Rafael Kubelik in the American premiere of the staged opera at the Met. Kubelik fell ill after the second performance and John stepped into the pit with Christa Ludwig (Dido) and Jon Vickers (Aeneas) staring down at him! And for John, the rest is history, he was invited to conduct Les Troyens at the Grand Theatre in Geneva, Switzerland for my European debut, and many other invitations followed.

In April 2019, John will be conducting performances of Berlioz La Damnation de Faust with Orchestre Philharmonique de Strasbourg and soloists Michael Spyres, Joyce DiDonato, Nicolas Courjal and Alexandre Duhamel [further details from the orchestra's website], which will be recorded for release on Warner Classics. John has done La Damnation de Faust both as an opera and as a concert work. Whilst Berlioz did not write the piece as an opera, he put in so many instructions that it seems as if it was meant for the stage but John prefers performing it in concert. This allows the audience to create their own images to accompany the music, and John feels sure that this is what Berlioz meant.

Further ahead John will be performing and recording Romeo et Juliet, an interpretation of the story with little singing in it (around a quarter is textual and the rest is all in the orchestra), so that the listener's imagination is induced by the music. It is not a conventional work, but John feels that Berlioz did not think the way other composers did. He was highly individual and something of an iconoclast, deliberately going against the norms, but John finds genuine sincerity in everything Berlioz wrote even though some people find it extravagant.

Further ahead, John will be performing and recording L'enfance du Christ in 2020, and there are plans for Symphony Fantastique which John will be pairing with Lelio. This latter was written by Berlioz as a sequel to the symphony, and though John feels that it does not really work or hang together well, he thinks is important to be including it with the symphony.

John Nelson (Photo Gregory Massat)
John Nelson (Photo Gregory Massat)
The recording of the Requiem will be out on Warner Classics in early Autumn, with Le Damnation de Faust in November, and Romeo et Juliet in 2020.

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