The Festival Chorus Triumph in an Enthralling Berlioz Performance
Three Choirs Festival (10) – Berlioz: Robert Murray (tenor), Three Choirs Festival Chorus, Philharmonia Orchestra / Edward Gardner (conductor). Gloucester Cathedral, 27.7. 2016. (JQ)
Berlioz – Grande messe des morts, op. 5
The Grande messe des morts, written in 1837, might be said to represent the zenith of the tradition of grand ceremonial music composed in France by the likes of Cherubini, Méhul and Berlioz himself both in the Napoleonic era and in the years following. Berlioz was commissioned to write it to honour those who lost their lives in the Revolution of 1830 which deposed King Charles X. However, the event which brought about the first performance, in Les Invalides, Paris in December 1837, was a commemoration of a French general and other soldiers who had lost their lives in a battle in Algeria earlier that year.
The invitation to set the text of the Mass for the Dead fired Berlioz’s creative imagination, even though he was not a religious man. He wrote in his Memoirs, in his characteristically unrestrained style, that the text of the Requiem Mass was a “prey I had long lain in wait for. Now at last it was mine and I fell upon it with a kind of fury.” He conceived the piece on a vastly ambitious scale and specified large forces to do his music justice: the first performance was given by a choir of 210 and an orchestra of 190. The instrumental forces include four separate contingents of brass players, to be positioned, ideally, at four discrete places away from the main orchestra. I had the good fortune to take part in a performance of this great work in Gloucester Cathedral some 18 months ago and I know what a tremendous logistical and musical challenge the work represents – and how thrilling it is.
Introducing the concert, the Dean of Gloucester remarked how poignant it was that we should be about to hear a French setting of the Requiem in light of the tragic events visited on France in the last couple of weeks. Concerts at the cathedral invariably begin with a prayer but on this occasion we were invited first to stand in memory of Father Jacques Hamel, so cruelly murdered the day before.
The Grande messe des morts makes huge demands of the chorus. Most of the well-known settings of the Requiem include movements, or at least sections, for soloists; not only do these provide contrast but, more pragmatically, opportunities for the choir to have a breather. Berlioz will have none of this. Only one of his movements, the ‘Sanctus’, involves a soloist and even then the choir sings as well. For the rest of the work the choir is on duty the whole time – nearly 90 minutes of singing – and the choral parts make extreme demands of stamina, not least for the tenors, who were heroic tonight.
Let me show my hand straightaway and declare that this performance was a triumph for the Three Choirs Festival Chorus. This is the fourth time I’ve heard them this week and each time they seem to have got better. Inevitably, each year a majority of the choir will be drawn from the host city so this year there will probably have been a sizeable contingent of Gloucester-based singers. I suspect it’s no coincidence that less than two years ago Festival Director Adrian Partington prepared in scrupulous detail the members of Gloucester Choral Society for two performances of this monumental work. Many of these singers will have been involved in this Three Choirs performance. It was evident to me that the Festival Chorus was right on top of this score. More than that, the difference between a good performance of this work and a really good performance relies on two things: scrupulous attention to detail and strong commitment. Both these characteristics were consistently in evidence tonight.
The ‘Dies irae’ was magnificent. This long build-up to the ‘Tuba mirum’ was thrillingly delivered by the choir as conductor Edward Gardner racked up the tension. At the ‘Tuba mirum’ itself the imposing fanfares from the four brass groups – all perfectly synchronised with each other – made a tremendous impact and the male voices proclaimed the text with great strength. Impressive as that was, however, the dread majesty of ‘Judex ergo’ was even more stirring. Here the sonority of the Philharmonia’s brass and percussion was almost overwhelming and yet the chorus were not to be intimidated; their music rang out clearly and confidently and they were not drowned out by the instruments. Just as apocalyptic was the end of the ‘Lacrymosa’ where Berlioz throws everything into the mix, set to a juggernaut 9/8 rhythm. Once again there was no question of us hearing only the orchestra; the choral contribution came over loud and clear.
But it’s a mistake to think of the Grande messe des morts as some kind of musical Leviathan. To be sure, vast orchestral forces are specified but these are used quite sparingly and, indeed, passages of quiet music predominate in this score and, for my money, contain the best music. One example is the ‘Quid sum miser’, sung almost entirely by the first tenors. Here the main challenge for the singers is to steady their pulse rate after the adrenalin rush of the ‘Tuba mirum’ and then to control Berlioz’s plaintive vocal lines. Tonight’s plangent-toned tenors succeeded admirably. A little later the six-part unaccompanied ‘Quaerens me’ is even more challenging. This is wonderfully expressive music but it’s also horribly exposed. A semi- chorus was used, which heightened still further the contrast with the movements around the ‘Quaerens me’, which are much bigger and grander in scale. The singers here offered eloquent and controlled singing. This, for me, was one of the high points of the performance.
Only in one movement, the Sanctus, is a soloist involved. Tonight we heard Robert Murray and he proved to be ideal in the role. This is a far from easy solo. The tenor needs to project his voice reasonably strongly so as not to appear tentative. Furthermore, the cruelly demanding tessitura and long lines require open-throated singing. Yet, unreasonably, Berlioz also demands finesse as well. Murray brought all these attributes to his performance. Singing from the organ screen, high up behind the other performers, his voice rang out truly, clearly and expressively. The tessitura held no terrors for him and I admired the sensitivity he brought to the music, not least the tasteful shading off of phrases. He sang on the 2010 recording conducted by Paul McCreesh, which aims to recreate the forces used for the first performance (review). I enjoyed his rendition then but it was a treat to hear him sing the part in live performance.
The Philharmonia’s contribution confirmed their world-class pedigree. As with the choir, though the massively sonorous passages impressed mightily it was their skill in delivering the many subtle passages of Berlioz’s score that made this performance special. Berlioz was one of the great orchestral innovators. His skill in orchestration wasn’t so much years ahead of his time as decades ahead. His ear for unusual sonorities was uncanny and in the Grande messe des morts he gave free rein to his imagination. There are countless small touches to relish: one of my favourites is the gentle bass drum and cymbal punctuations in the reprise of the ‘Sanctus’, here ideally rendered. The ‘Hostias’ is extraordinary with its series of chords voiced, at opposite ends of the orchestral spectrum, solely by high flutes and cavernous trombones. Just as remarkable is the ‘Agnus Dei’ which includes sequences of woodwind chords. The chord progressions are arresting in themselves but so too is the way in which each chord gives way to a soft chord on the violas. This is highly imaginative music and requires pinpoint accuracy if it is to make its mark. Suffice to say that the Philharmonia delivered the goods. I was equally thrilled with their playing in the ‘Offertoire’. Who but Berlioz would write a movement in a choral work in which the choir is restricted almost entirely to two-note semitone phrases while all the musical argument is carried by the orchestra? The result is a magnetic movement which was done superbly by all concerned.
Edward Gardner is Gloucester-born and bred. As a boy he was a chorister in the Cathedral and in recent years he’s returned more than once as a welcome guest conductor at Three Choirs Festivals in his home city. I doubt that he ever imagined in his chorister days that one day he would be on the rostrum in the cathedral directing the huge forces required by the Grande messe des morts. But, of course, an awful lot of water has passed under the bridge since then and he is now a conductor with an international reputation. He has a strong operatic pedigree, forged principally at ENO, and that must have stood him in good stead tonight since this work is nothing if not dramatic. Gardner was in total command and it was clear that from first beat to last he was galvanising his forces. He made the ‘Big Moments’ very exciting indeed but he was just as alive to the passages where delicacy and finesse are required. He was at one, it seemed, with Berlioz’s vision and I thought his conducting was compelling. When, in the last few, bars the repeated ‘Amens’ glowed gently one felt a very satisfying sense of finis.
The gaunt majesty of the Grande messe des morts was marvellously realised in this superb performance. I was enthralled