BERLIOZ: Grande Messe des Morts – London Philharmonia – Erato 

by | Dec 27, 2019 | Classical CD Reviews | 1 comment

BERLIOZ: Grande Messe des Morts, Op. 5 – Michael Spyres, baritone/ London Philharmonic Choir/ Philharmonia Chorus/ Philharmonia Orchestra/ John Nelson – Erato CD + DVD 0190295430641 81:35 (CD); 88:00 (DVD) (10/11/19) [Distr. by Warner Classics] ****:

Much ink has already been spilled on the virtues – and defects – of the Hector Berlioz sumptuous 1837 Grande Messe des Morts, its magnitude and breadth of conception, and its cavalier, idiosyncratic treatment of the traditional requiem mass.  At best a religious skeptic, Berlioz approached the monumental score as an epic contemplation of death, with perhaps the ulterior motive of then glorifying life, expanding the notion of accepted concert space in order to realize the  colossal contradictions in human nature: in the words of Omar Khayyam, “You yourself are Heaven and Hell.” Commentators have likened the ten-movement structure to a “Napoleonic” impulse to exalt the French national spirit through bold and audacious orchestration, sheer mass of musical forces, and the composer’s already dazzling combination of harmonic experiment and often disarming economy.

Portrait Berlioz

Hector Berlioz

The John Nelson production, recorded live (8 March 2019) at St. Paul’s Cathedral, has the immediate sense of spaciousness that Berlioz requires, that acoustical expanse that wants to include mystery, defiance, and awe at once in its vision of death in its terror and majesty, its place in the cosmology as the human mind and spirit might understand it. The work itself has precedents in Cherubini (Requiem, 1816), Leseur (Symphonic Ode, 1801), and Mozart, whose 1777 Notturno for Four Orchestras, K. 286 projects something of the antiphonal girth of sonority, while the Cherubini and Leseur models supply something of the “archaic” quality of the emotional effect. Nelson confronts the obviously theatrical elements in the score, as in the noisy opening of Rex tremendae, that third part of the extended Dies Irae, which combines the individual’s sense of imminent judgment and personal regret at an eternity of suffering, against the majesty and might of God, who could be disposed to find mercy for the repentant sinner. The immediate dramatic contrast, the Quaerens me, sedisti lassus, comes in the form of the a cappella mediation on the sacrifice upon the cross, as to whether human vanity warrants the sparing of the guilty, morally frail supplicant. Vacillating between three and six-part harmony, the choral forces stand stripped of pretense and ostentation, exposing what the poet deemed “the naked shingles of the world.”

The essence of the coloring of this massive score lies in its textural variety, the sheer vibration of English horn and bassoons (Quid sum miser), consoling cymbals in the Sanctus, convulsive, punishing rhythms and momentum (Lacrymosa), melodic monotony in two notes (Offertorium), spiritual bankruptcy (Hostias), and lyrical humanity and fertility (Sanctus).  For the Sanctus, tenor Spyres projects that warm resonance we have had in prior documents from Gedda and Simoneau, the voice against soft cymbal crashes, as if heaven’s wings swaddle the sweet supplicant. The ensuing double fugue on Hosanna seems to confirm the voices of the female chorus, in that salvation and self-acceptance of one’s errors are possible. The Agnus Dei serves as a composite of Hostias, Requiem and Rex tremenae, moving to almost ineffable sense of cosmic relief in G Major. The epic vision in Berlioz has approximated much in Dante and Blake, spiritual kin in their estimation of the human capacity for frightful arrogance and infinite regret. Six “amen” cadences confirm the composer’s reluctant expression of his personal credo, if not faith, given the unorthodoxy of his sensibility. When, o Earth, will thou be ready to receive thy saints?

This recorded performance, in both CD and DVD incarnations, comes highly recommended.

—Gary Lemco



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