Berlioz, Bortniansky

Our rating 
4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

COMPOSERS: Berlioz,Bortniansky
LABELS: Decca
WORKS: Grande messe de morts
PERFORMER: John Mark Ainsley (tenor); Montreal SO & Chorus/Charles Dutoit
CATALOGUE NO: 458 921-2
Berlioz’s Requiem requires an imposing space and a wide dynamic range; triple piano is as important as the brass-laden triple forte. Given the limitations of recording, the Montreal team was perhaps well advised to offer the clarity usually unavailable in live performance. Some passages may even sound too beautiful for Berlioz’s apocalyptic vision, and there is more visceral excitement from Previn and Beecham. Nevertheless, this is a finely honed performance – the difficult orchestral chording is of tip-top precision – which must be a candidate for future benchmarking. The sound is somewhat clinical, without the usual reverberation into Berlioz’s carefully placed silences; but subtlety of detail is a compensation, and if the overall dynamic spectrum is only adequate, internal nuances are well achieved. The chorus is excellent, achieving freshness of tone and real power where needed, although its strange, swaying ostinato is too loud in the Offertorium. I would have expected Ainsley to suit the ethereal Sanctus well, but his quivering vibrato is surely inappropriate. Otherwise these difficult movements are finely handled in a performance full of musicality.

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The title imposed on the supplementary music – ‘Five sacred pieces’ – is promotional hokum: the Resurrexit was salvaged from the Messe solennelle of 1825 (some bars reappear in the Requiem); ‘Veni creator’ and ‘Tantum ergo’ may be Berlioz’s last music, but are not especially characteristic; the other pieces are by Bortniansky, adapted by Berlioz with Latin texts. The unaccompanied music is sung with discipline and expression, the Resurrexit with splendid energy. Julian Rushton