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Performances

Hector Berlioz by Pierre Petit [Source: Wikipedia]
05 May 2019

Berlioz’s Requiem at the Concertgebouw – earthshakingly stupendous

It was high time the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra programmed Hector Berlioz’s Grande Messe des morts. They hadn’t performed it since 1989, and what better year to take it up again than in 2019, the 150th anniversary of Berlioz’s death?

Berlioz’s Requiem at the Concertgebouw – earthshakingly stupendous

A review by Jenny Camilleri

Above: Hector Berlioz by Pierre Petit [Source: Wikipedia]

 

The second of two performances conducted by Sir Antonio Pappano took place on the 4th of May and also functioned as a Memorial Concert. The 4th of May is when the Dutch honor all wartime victims since the outbreak of the Second World War with remembrance ceremonies and concerts across the country.

A day before, at the first performance, the enormous fortissimos literally made the Concertgebouw floor quake. But Berlioz’s Mass for the Dead, with its huge choir and instrumental arsenal, does not just overwhelm with shock and awe. Its hushed, timorous moments provoke pity. Unexpected changes of temperament and color buffet listeners about, leaving them disoriented. For the Rex tremendae Berlioz prescribes sixteen timpani and four brass orchestras, strategically positioned to produce a quadrophonic effect. In terms of size and span, this is the ultimate spatial theatre. Yet the sense of boundless space also comes from choral phrases that rise softly from or are suddenly swallowed up by silence. In a gripping, theatrical performance, Sir Antonio Pappano brought out the work’s myriad spatial and dynamic facets in fine detail. The first bars of the Introitus—confident, expansive and perceptively molded—heralded the character of his whole Requiem. The RCO don’t need a great conductor to play beautifully, but to hear them play in a thrillingly conceived account such as this one was an extraordinary experience.

For the world premiere in 1837 Berlioz envisioned 800 choristers and 465 musicians filling the huge church of the Invalides in Paris. Expense limitations cut that number to about half, and the published score calls for a 200-strong chorus. But the composer indicated that the number of singers and players should be tailored to the venue. The forces at the Concertgebouw were not as big as those set down in the score, but they were perfectly sufficient. There were around 120 choristers and the number of instruments in the brass bands, two flanking the onstage organ and two at the extreme ends of the balcony, had been halved. It was still enough to make the hall shake. No recording can approach hearing Berlioz’s Last Judgment fanfares live and so splendidly played. And his instrumental coloring, at times downright bizarre, makes perfect sense when rendered so exquisitely. Who but Berlioz could have conceived the improbable mix of male voices accompanied by flutes and trombones in the Hostias? The hopeful flutes reach towards heaven while the trombones drag them uncompromisingly down to earth. It’s a sobering device that he also employs in the Lacrimosa, when the choir basses and the bassoons counter the ethereal tenors with plummeting, despondent figures. The orchestra and choir could not have depicted this struggle between yearning and despair more perspicuously.

Besides being music director of the Royal Opera House, Sir Antonio Pappano is also at the helm of the Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, and he brought their chorus with him for the occasion. It was up to their chorus master, Ciro Visco, to meld the Roman choir and the local Netherlands Radio Choir into an integrated ensemble, a task he fulfilled with triumphant success. The choir produced sumptuous, full-bodied harmonies, with defiantly percussive consonants in the ferocious Dies irae and Rex tremendae. The lyrical lines of the unaccompanied Quaerens me flowed like clear honey. Blanched, fearful murmurs receded into an almost tangible abyss, high voices shimmered in heaven-bound invocations. Berlioz may have been a hardened unbeliever, but anyone who heard the tenors’ beautiful entrance on “Te decet hymnus” in the Agnus dei, after the series of hesitant chords in the woodwinds, must have at least been tempted to have faith in something. Heightening the intensity of the evening, tenor Javier Camarena was a prayerful, expressive soloist in the Sanctus, with irreproachable legato and top notes with brilliant overtones. This stupendous performance was captured for transmission on the radio at a later date. Hopefully, the RCO will also produce a commercial recording.

Jenny Camilleri


Berlioz: Grande Messe des morts

Javier Camarena, Tenor. Sir Antonio Pappano, Conductor. Ciro Visco, Chorus Master. Netherlands Radio Choir (Groot Omroepkoor). Choir of the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia. Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. Heard at the Concertgebouw, Amsterdam on Friday, the 3rd of May, 2019.

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