SACD & Other Hi-Res Reviews

BERLIOZ: Grande Messe des morts – Barry Banks, tenor/ London Philharmonic Choir/ London Sym. Chorus/ London Sym. Orch./ Colin Davis – LSO Live

Davis’s last attempt at the elusive and difficult Requiem. But is he sabotaged by St. Paul’s?

Published on April 19, 2013

BERLIOZ: Grande Messe des morts – Barry Banks, tenor/ London Philharmonic Choir/ London Sym. Chorus/ London Sym. Orch./ Sir Colin Davis – LSO Live multichannel SACD LSO0729 (2 discs), 94:04 [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] ***1/2:

Everyone on record that has attempted to tame the acoustics of cavernous St. Paul’s in London has failed, bar none. I am not sure why conductors keep trying to domesticate the place because it just is not optimal for a recording experience.  Perhaps being there is different, but on record there are so many problems that the effort seems futile, and indeed, is. This new recording by Berlioz expert Colin Davis unfortunately falls into the same category.

Davis himself cannot be faulted for any of this, unless he was complicit in the decision to record there. His credentials as a Berliozian of first rank are unquestioned, and many of his recordings of the composer have attained classic status, and rightfully so. Performance-wise there is little to complain of here, and the interpretation is masterly by a man who knows Berlioz perhaps better than any other conductor in the world. Everything about it is judged as just right, and Davis is one of the few who consistently realizes that the lyrical propensities of the composer are as important—especially in this work—as the more grandiose and bombastic passages. As an interpretation this is as good as it gets, the equal of any recording on the market, though there are some people who will complain about his slower tempos this go round, much more so than his earlier recording now available in four-channel surround on Pentatone’s RQR Series.

The problem is the sound. This is one of the most reverberant recordings I have ever heard, so much so that in the louder passages the chorus sounds as if it is way in the distance—like the next block down, and you cannot get any feeling for the palpable weight of the choral presence, which should be quite substantial. Separation wise, the back-hall brass are done such that you are not always aware that the instruments are really in the back—they sound sort of “ghosted” from the front–though I found that boosting the audio in general helped with this spatial aspect of the performance. The impact of the louder passages is significant though often so explosive that one rears back in stunned surprise.

Davis fans will want this one, and justly so. And there are few surround sound alternatives, surprisingly so considering there are 35+ versions on the market. Editor Sunier wasn’t particularly attracted to the Spano on Telarc—though I think it spectacular in sonic presence—but likes the Utah Symphony/Abravanel recording in the Mormon Tabernacle. Aside from these, only the old and classic Munch on RCA in three-channel surround will fit the bill, and it cannot possibly capture all of the splendor of this score. So we wait…

—Steven Ritter

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