December 18, 2008


Berlioz: Grosse Totenmesse (Requiem), op. 5. Keith Ikaia-Purdy, tenor; Chor der Sächsischen Staatsoper Dresden, Sinfoniechor Dresden, Singakademie Dresden and Staatskapelle Dresden conducted by Sir Colin Davis. Profil. $33.99 (2 CDs).

     There is holiness in the air in this season, for those who believe in the religious underpinnings of Christmas. But there is holiness at other times of the year, too, and there has rarely been a performance so expressive of spirituality as the one of Berlioz’ Requiem led by Sir Colin Davis in February 1994. That is the performance heard, live but with such overwhelming audience quiet that the silence itself speaks volumes, in the new two-CD set from Profil.

     Dresden was firebombed by Allied forces – American and British – in the waning days of World War II. The attack was one of almost pure revenge by nations whose victory was by that time inevitable: although Dresden was a rail center, it had little strategic importance and a great deal of historical meaning to the German Volk. Perhaps that fact figured into the decision to destroy the city, for the Allies did not do a mere bombing raid: they rained down so much destruction that they created a firestorm, a hellish tornado of flame that swept through the grand old buildings and much-loved monuments of a supremely artistic city, killing 25,000 people and reducing most of the central city (but not the military areas surrounding it) to smoldering rubble. If this was a strike at any remaining German morale, it was wholly successful. But it was widely perceived, after the end of the war, as an atrocity, and as such became the subject not only of scholarly studies but also of such novels as Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five (Vonnegut had actually been a prisoner of war in Dresden during the firebombing).

     The postwar German reaction to the Dresden firebombing eventually coalesced into an annual memorial on February 13 and 14 – the anniversary of the 1945 attack. Two performances of Berlioz’ Requiem in 1994 were that year’s memorial, and the Profil recording is of the second (it was so cold that February that equipment froze on the 13th, making recording of the first concert impossible). Berlioz’ Requiem is one of the most monumental of all classical works, requiring more performers than Mahler’s Symphony No. 8 (“Symphony of a Thousand”) and turning stage management into as great a challenge as the music itself. This performance at Dresden’s Kreuzkirche solves the placement and musical problems with equal brilliance – and the result may surprise listeners. For this is a work most often identified as a spectacle, notably for its overwhelming “Rex tremendae majestatis.” But Davis’ presentation is most impressive for its quiet. The austerity of “Quaerens me,” the unusual sound of “Hostias” (sung by male voices with flute and trombone accompaniment), the solo tenor and women’s choir in “Sanctus,” and the pianissimo winds and quiet timpani at the very end are the elements that make this such an outstanding and moving performance. The audience is absolutely silent – indeed, it is a tradition at the Dresden memorials that there is no applause afterwards; everyone leaves in silent contemplation. The result is that listeners will feel as if they are themselves part of the live audience, moving with the music and being moved by it.

     The Dresden memorial concerts have offered a wide variety of music, including Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis and Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 (“Resurrection”) as well as a number of requiems. Berlioz’ work in this form is not liturgically correct – the composer changed the words to suit his expressive purposes – but it is extraordinarily apt for the occasion. Indeed, in the Davis performance from 1994, it is a transcendent experience, spanning the time from Berlioz’ creation of the piece (1837) to that of World War II to that of our own modern and apparently unending wars.

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