Berlioz: Grande messe des Morts

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COMPOSERS: Berlioz
LABELS: Glor
WORKS: Grande messe des Morts
PERFORMER: Paul Groves (tenor); EuropaChorAkademie; SWR SO Baden-Baden und Freiburg/ Sylvain Cambreling
CATALOGUE NO: GCO 8034 (hybrid CD/SACD)

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Berlioz and Baden-Baden go back a long way: the composer conducted there regularly in his later years and wrote his last major work, the waspish comedy Béatrice et Bénédict, to open its new opera house in 1862. Premiered 25 years earlier in Les Invalides, Berlioz’s Requiem has long enjoyed, or rather endured, a reputation for inflated grandiosity, with its rare performances invariably peddled off the back of its demand for quadruple off-stage brass and massed percussion.

Yet, as this exceptional new recording by the Baden-Baden and Freiburg radio orchestra reminds us, it is for the most part a work of almost austere beauty and quiet contemplation, in which (a few truly apocalyptic moments aside) the outsize orchestral forces are deployed more to support sonorous pianissimos than simply to raise the roof. Not that Sylvain Cambreling doesn’t relish every uniquely Berliozian effect, ranging from the clamorous surround-sound fanfares of the ‘Tuba Mirum’ to the infinitely soft cymbal clashes that, like some heavenly scent-dispenser, seem to puff the odour of sanctity across the close of the Sanctus. Meanwhile, his control of long-term tempo and tension is masterly.  

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But what really makes this version special is the virtuosic contribution of the EuropaChorAkademie, a group of young professional singers drawn from all over Europe (and beyond) under the inspired direction of Joshard Daus. Putting to shame the amateur choirs heard on some ‘classic’ recordings, they display a truly breathtaking purity of intonation, rhythmic precision and collective engagement, as resonantly full-toned in the soft a cappella fugato of the ‘Quaerens Me’ as in the thundering eruptions of the Dies Irae. With singing of this calibre, Heine’s hyperbolic comparison of the work to ‘a colossal nightingale the size of an eagle’ for once makes perfect sense. Mark Pappenheim