Berlioz: Requiem; Overtures

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WORKS: Requiem; Overtures
PERFORMER: Ernst Senff Choir; Berlin Philharmonic/James Levine
The reputation of Berlioz’s Requiem (properly Grande Messe des Morts) is founded on its four brass choirs, its acres of timpani, and its novel sonorities designed to linger in, rather than merely fill, a vast acoustical space. Yet much of it is intimate, and most of it is quiet; the full forces are unleashed only three times. No more than other recordings can this one capture its cathedral ambience, nor reproduce its dynamic extremes; the plaintive ‘Quid sum miser’, boxed between the mighty ‘Tuba mirum’ and the savage ‘Rex tremendae’, should be barely audible but here has too much muscle.


Self-indulgent slowness also makes the Requiem’s finest movement, the Offertory, nearly tedious. This Requiem suffers from its virtues, clean singing and recording: it is not numinous, and works best when Berlioz comes surprisingly down to earth in the fugal ‘Hosanna’. It is worst when his vision of heaven in the ‘Sanctus’, intended for a floating, androgynous French tenor, is given vibrantly operatic treatment by Pavarotti. ‘Quaerens me’ sounds solid rather than awestruck and the savage exultation of the ‘Lacrimosa’ is missed. Julian Rushton