Berlioz: Grande messe des morts

LABELS: Hanssler
WORKS: Grande messe des morts
PERFORMER: Toby Spence (tenor); SWR Vocal Ensemble, Stuttgart; MDR Radio Choir, Leipzig; Stuttgart Radio SO, SWR/Roger Norrington
This live performance from 2003 in Stuttgart’s Beethovensaal, part of a European tour by these forces in celebration of Berlioz’s birth bicentenary, is certainly among the most impressive available today. There is a palpable sense of occasion, though the audience is admirably silent: it’s quite a shock when they come in at the end of the ‘Agnus Dei’ with sustained and well-deserved applause. Norrington favours spacious tempi in the majestic, processional movements and high, sometimes lurid drama in the more apocalyptic ones. But the abiding impression is of the rock-like nature of the Requiem, the gaunt, sinewy lines that define its vast architecture. Then again, the glowing tenderness of the ‘Quarens me’ and Toby Spence’s sensitive tenor in the ‘Sanctus’ mean that the feminine, contemplative side of this predominantly virile piece is well cared for.


The balance seems admirably natural, by which I mean the brass and voices are not especially close-miked and one gets a realistic impression of the music taking place in a huge acoustical space. Above all this reading is notable for the clarity and cleanness of line, something Norrington has brought out already in many ‘period’ performances of 19th century classics.

For me the two great benchmarks for this work remain Colin Davis’s radiant and incisive account recorded in Westminster Cathedral, and Charles Munch’s blazing 1960 recording for RCA made in Symphony Hall Boston (not currently available). I would still place Davis above Norrington for sheer understanding of this epic score, even if his tenor, Ferruccio Tagliavini, is less satisfying than Spence. But this is a very competitive version and a notable addition to Norrington’s discography.


Calum MacDonald