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Hector Berlioz [Portrait by Gustave Courbet, 1850]
13 Aug 2012

Berlioz’s Requiem (Grande messe des morts) — BBC Prom 39

The massed forces of the 600+ singers and players assembled for this exciting performance of Berlioz’s gargantuan Requiem (Grande messe des morts) made for an impressive visual spectacle in the vast high Victorian Royal Albert Hall.

Hector Berlioz: Grande Messe des morts

Toby Spence: tenor, BBC National Orchestra of Wales, BBC National Chorus of Wales, Huddersfield Choral Society, London Symphony Chorus , Conductor: Thierry Fischer

Royal Albert Hall, London, 11th August 2012

Above: Hector Berlioz [Portrait by Gustave Courbet, 1850]


Who would not feel a frisson of anticipation when presented with an ocean of string players, as many as 8 bassoonists, 12 horn players, 4 additional brass ensembles, and a veritable football team of percussionists, seated before a choral multitude, all ready to join together in what is one of the most thrilling and dramatic of choral works?

The aural result was similarly imposing, with the magnificence and might of the ensemble complemented by the solemn sobriety and tender sweetness of individual lines.

Berlioz requested that his colossal forces be spatially separated, and one might think that the vast arena of the Albert Hall, with its many tiers and galleries, would be an ideal venue in which to perform and experience this work. However, Thierry Fischer’s decision to place the ‘off-stage’ brass ensembles together, behind the orchestra produced mixed results.

One the one hand, the sound was focused and intense: the impact of the monumental entry of the brass bands in ‘Dies Irae’ evoked the apocalyptic power of the natural world: a tremendous tidal wave of sound, perfectly fulfilling Berlioz’s ambitions, revealed in his Memoirs, that “this awesome musical cataclysm, so carefully prepared, where exceptional and tremendous means are used in proportions and combinations never attempted before or since, this picture of the Last Judgement, which [will], I hope, live on as a great landmark in our art”.

On the other hand, some of the antiphonal effects and the sense of dialogue between the groups was occasionally lost by this placement, as, for example, in the successive entries of the brass ensembles which follow their first collective fanfare, each a third higher than the previous one.

Perhaps Fischer was concerned with the practical problem of co-ordinating multiple ensembles scattered far and wide in a cavernous barn; indeed, Berlioz himself was aware that there was a danger of “an enormous and dreadful cacophony” without skilful conducting. [Berlioz subsequently reported that the work’s first conductor, Habeneck had, at the very moment of the problematic tempo change at the start of the ‘Tuba mirum’ “lowered his baton, quietly pulled out his snuff box and started to take a pinch of snuff. I was still looking in his direction. Immediately I pivoted on my heels, rushed in front of him, stretched out my arms and indicated the four main beats of the new tempo. The orchestras followed me, everything went off as planned, I continued to conduct to the end of the piece, and the effect I had dreamed of was achieved.”]

Whether the choral forces were an equal match for the brass eruption, probably depended upon where in the vast hall you were seated. Certainly there was some outstanding choral singing; and in any case, despite its Napoleonic scale and celebratory, even aggrandizing air, the Requiem is a work of both spectacle and subtlety. The thunderous passages may be the most well-known, even notorious, but they are short-lived, and much of the score is restrained, Berlioz’s fine ear for instrumental colour always in evidence - even the 10 pairs of cymbals are employed softly en masse.

Fischer did much to elucidate the timbral variety, in particular drawing out the distinct reedy blend of the woodwind groupings, so creating an effectively austere contrast to the more flamboyant theatrical moments of the score. Of particular note was the opening of the brief ‘Quid sum miser’, depicting after Judgement Day, where there was some superb cor anglais and bassoon playing, complemented by dark, brooding ’celli and double basses.

Similarly, in the furiously paced ‘Rex tremendae’ Fischer delineated the contrasts and juxtapositions, the choir both commanding, “Rex tremendae majestatis”, and imploring, “Salve me”.

After such intense passion, the soft men’s entry at the start of the a cappella ‘Quaerens me’ was striking. And, in the ‘Offertorium’ the choral restatements of “Domine Jesu Christe” interweaved stylishly with the orchestral motifs, the fragmented utterances establishing a mournful, plaintive mood.

Tenor Toby Spence, the lone soloist before these colossal forces, has clearly not fully recovered his voice, following the serious throat condition which he recently suffered. However, in the ‘Sanctus’ there were still signs of the sweet lyrical tenor for which he is justly renowned. And, although he could not always sustain a clean tone, becoming a little hoarse and unfocussed at times and relying on a quasi-falsetto for some of the higher range, this was a brave performance; indeed, together with the delicate high strings and flute, Spence’s slight vulnerability complemented the pathos of text which so often reflects upon the fragility of man in a desolate universe.

Although the tempo of the ‘Lacrimosa’ was a little fast for my liking - the melody can sound rather trite if rushed - overall Fischer judged the structure of the whole effectively, bringing out both the grandeur and intimacy of the work. The long-held woodwind and string chords in the ‘Agnus Dei’ brought calm and, as melodies from previous movements were reprised, a sense of peace, a movement from judgement to redemption.

As David Cairns explains in his programme essay, the Requiem belongs to the tradition of ceremonial, Revolutionary works which represented “the idea of the Nation, the entire people of France, assembled for a solemn act of prayer and thanksgiving”. Although the performers in the Albert Hall probably did not quite reach the decibel-level of the full-throated, 14-minute roar which accompanied Mo Farah’s run into the Olympic history books at the other end of London that night, they certainly conveyed Berlioz’s fervent vision of the astonishing power of both faith and humanity.

Claire Seymour

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