December 27, 2018


Berlioz: Grande Messe des morts. Bror Magnus Tødenes, tenor; Choir of Collegiûm Mûsicûm, Edvard Grieg Kor, Royal Northern College of Music Chorus, Bergen Philharmonic Choir, Eikanger-Bjørsvik Musikklag, musicians from Bergen Philharmonic Youth Orchestra and Crescendo, and Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Edward Gardner. Chandos. $18.99 (SACD).

     Hector Berlioz had a penchant for excess, and it is especially evident in his Requiem, for which the name “Requiem” did not suffice – no, for Berlioz this was the Grande Messe des morts, emphasis on “grand.” First performed in 1837, when Berlioz was 34, this unprecedentedly large-scale version of the familiar Latin mass for the dead produced at its première one of the many anecdotes that made Berlioz seem the quintessential Romantic composer: when conductor François-Antoine Habeneck put down his baton momentarily to take a pinch of snuff, doing so at the extremely inopportune moment when the Tuba mirum was about to start, Berlioz himself interceded, jumping to the stage and assuming control of the orchestra to ensure that the new tempo of the upcoming section was set correctly and maintained.

     Berlioz’ Grande Messe des morts is certainly not the only such work to indulge in some over-the-top scoring and intensity – Verdi’s Requiem of 1874 comes immediately to mind as another such – but Berlioz was the first composer to treat the mass for the dead with operatic splendor and to demand gigantic forces, both vocal and instrumental, to communicate the meaning of the words. The way to Mahler’s Eighth Symphony, the “Symphony of a Thousand,” was paved by Berlioz’ Grande Messe des morts and the 400-plus people needed to perform it.

     It is reasonable to wonder whether the true meaning of the Latin Requiem gets lost beneath all the intensity and splendid scoring: Berlioz was a master orchestrator, never more clearly so than here. There is a foundational simplicity to the Latin text, from its opening plea to God to grant the dead eternal rest (at least until the Last Judgment), to the final Agnus dei, in which the same request is given even more plaintively and hopefully. The rising scales at the opening of Berlioz’ Grande Messe des morts seem clearly to represent prayer rising to Heaven, a technique later employed more extensively by Arrigo Boito in Mefistofele, which was first performed a year before Berlioz’ death. The conclusion of Berlioz’ work, with its long-held chords, also seems to have a clear intent, of producing a feeling of peace and bringing back elements originally heard earlier in the work so they may be, in a musical sense, laid to rest.

     It is what happens between the opening and concluding sections of the Grande Messe des morts, however, that brings the work most of its attention. There are the four offstage brass ensembles sounding the knell for Judgment Day, and the 16 timpani, two bass drums and four tam-tams that soon join in to produce great gouts of splendid sound. There is the reappearance of the brass groups in the Rex tremendae. There is the splendidly calculated gradual accretion of brass and percussion in the Lacrimosa, the only sonata-form movement in the Grande Messe des morts. There is the fugue in the Offertory, and the only appearance of the solo tenor, in the Sanctus – one of the few elements of the work about which Berlioz may not have been 100% certain, since at one point he suggested that the solo part could be sung by 10 tenors. And there are the numerous felicities of orchestration throughout – to cite just one example, the setting of Quid sum miser for tenors, basses, and eight bassoons, plus two cors anglais, cellos, and double basses, resulting in an exceptionally effective musical depiction of the lowest depths to which the sinner’s soul has sunk, from which only the mercy of God can rescue it.

     Excessive the Grande Messe des morts may be, but it is also magnificent, and it is a rare performance that does not produce at least the occasional breathtaking moment. The new Chandos recording of a live performance conducted by Edward Gardner has more than its share of those. It is a moderately paced version of the Grande Messe des morts, which can last as long as 90 minutes but here comes in at 81 (on a single, excellently recorded SACD). French choral works, like French operas, require careful attention to the balance of vocal and instrumental elements, and Gardner is especially sensitive to this: both the sung and instrumental materials get their full due, and when the massed chorus and orchestra perform together, the attention to detail is remarkable (aided by the nature of SACD recording, but clear even when the disc is played as a standard CD). Bror Magnus Tødenes has a clear, well-balanced voice for his solo passages, and the various choruses cooperate smoothly and evenly throughout. The Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra plays the music with sensitivity as well as fine sectional balance, and if the overall effect is somewhat more grandiose than warm and intimate, that is an understandable approach to this music. Certainly there is beauty here when it is called for, and if the more-dramatic sections of this performance of the Grande Messe des morts stay with listeners to a greater extent than do the quiet, introspective ones, the audience will be justified in attributing that reality as much to Berlioz as to Gardner and these performers. By any measure, Berlioz’ Grande Messe des morts is a musical spectacle, even when heard rather than seen. Gardner’s excellent handling of the material shows more of its power than of its humanity and humility – but it is certainly arguable that that is exactly what Berlioz wanted on display in his setting.

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