Berlioz: Grande messe des morts
Since the first performance of the Berlioz Requiem in 1837 was given in the impressive space of the Invalides, in Paris, St Paul’s Cathedral must have seemed an inviting parallel venue. But for a recording it clearly posed serious problems: first, the chorus is uncomfortably distant and often overwhelmed by the orchestra; and second, the late Sir Colin Davis felt that when a loud ending to one passage was instantly followed by a quieter start to the next, the reverberant acoustic meant he needed to let the loud ending clear before continuing. This leaves gaping holes in the musical discourse. I can see his point of view, but I can’t agree with it.
The recording, which is the last Davis made although not the final one to be released, consists of a compendium of the best of two live concerts in June last year. Sadly, the reverberant sound seems to swallow any immediacy, certainly compared to the 1969 Philips recording with the same conductor and orchestra. Even with two performances to choose from, there are inelegances: orchestral chords not quite together (the last one of the first movement), over-powerful chorus basses and, as tiredness begins to tell, flat singing (tenor high F naturals a particular casualty). And if the chorus sings a continental ‘Sahnctus’, why is the tenor soloist allowed to sing an old English ‘Sanctus’?