The Chorus Wins the Laurels in the Berlioz Requiem

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Prom 39 Berlioz: Requiem (Grande messe des morts),Toby Spence (tenor), BBC National Chorus of Wales, Huddersfield Choral Society, London Symphony Chorus, BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Thierry Fischer (conductor), Royal Albert Hall, London, 12.8.2012 (GDn)

This has been a good year for performances of the Berlioz Requiem. It is only two months since Colin Davis conducted the work in St Paul’s Cathedral (review), and since then Gardiner has performed it in Paris, in a concert web-streamed live to appreciative British audiences.

Fortunately, Thierry Fischer is able more than to hold his own against those heavy weight Berlioz interpreters. He has an impressive skill in shepherding the huge forces the work employs. Nothing about the logistics of this undertaking visibly fazed him, and he was able to put in a distinctive and engaging interpretation. Berlioz asks for tempo changes, accelerandos in particular, that more wary conductors might be inclined to ignore for the sake of ensemble. But Fischer confidently does everything the composer asks of him. Even so, this was a distinctly unsentimental reading; the tempos were fluid, but Fischer always resisted the temptation to dwell on the climaxes, or to pull around the phrasing for emotive effect.

The massed choirs were on his wavelength, and the choral singing was easily the best part of this performance. The ladies and gentlemen were positioned at opposite sides of the organ, but the coordination between them was never in question. Berlioz makes some extreme and unusual demands, but all were skilfully met. The tenors in particular have their work cut out, but coped well with all the high notes and awkward entries.

Sadly, Toby Spence couldn’t match the choir in his ‘Sanctus’ solo. Spence underwent throat surgery earlier this year, so it is a wonder that he appeared at all this evening. But clearly his voice has not yet recovered. His performance was filled with emotion, and the legato with which he shaped the phrases was ideal. But the tone just wasn’t there, especially in the high notes, which hardly sounded at all.

The orchestra too had their problems. They suffered more than the choir in the dire Albert Hall acoustic. It is perhaps the ultimate indictment of this venue that even the ‘Tuba mirum’, one of the loudest passages in the whole repertoire, was swallowed up by the cavernous space. The orchestra had some tactics to deal with the sound problems. Everything they played, even the quieter music, was presented in a declamatory, no nonsense style. So not much subtlety here, but what else can you do?

The four brass bands were arranged at the corners of the orchestra, just as the score stipulates. This worked well, apart from the fact that the tiered stage gave the two bands at the back far more prominence than those at the front. There were no ophicleides in the brass groups, but there were cornets. The choice of trombones was good: following 19th century French custom, all the trombones were Bb tenors, giving a satisfying edge to all those long pedals.

The orchestral playing was often poorly coordinated. This may have been because of the emphatic attack the players were forced to give each entry, highlighting ensemble problems that may otherwise have escaped attention. This was a particular problem for the woodwind. On the other hand, the double basses had a great evening, and found a way to project through the texture against all the odds. The percussion also did very well. They seemed to occupy about half the stage, but despite their numbers their ensemble and balance was close to ideal.

A variable but enjoyable Berlioz Requiem then, from an unusually enlarged BBC NOW. Thierry Fischer is about to leave the orchestra, and this is the last Prom that he will conduct as their Musical Director. Against the odds, he managed to give a performance that was a real interpretation, and that, for the most part, held together without major problems. The choir though, were the real stars, and although the orchestral playing was serviceable at best, the performance was wholly redeemed by the high standard of ensemble singing.

Gavin Dixon