Horrors of Hell Unleashed Musically in Gloucester’s Ancient Cathedral

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Berlioz: Grande Messe des Morts: Paul Nilon (tenor), Gloucester Choral Society, Bristol Choral Society, Philharmonia Orchestra / Adrian Partington (conductor), Gloucester Cathedral, 22.11.2014. (RJ)

“If I were threatened with seeing my entire oeuvre burned less one score, it would have to be for the Messe des morts that I would beg mercy” wrote Berlioz in a postcript to his memoirs. This choral blockbuster from a larger than life composer employs huge musical forces, including four brass bands and eight pairs of timpani. This is not a project to be taken lightly, and it is to the great credit of Gloucester and Bristol Choral Societies that they should mount not one but two performances of this work; they had already performed it to acclaim in September at the Royal Festival Hall with Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting.

This time Gloucester Cathedral’s Director of Music was on the conductor’s rostrum. As I gazed around at the 240 strong chorus and the huge Philhamonia, I must admit to feeling a little queasy; while the venerable building may be perfect for Renaissance a capella music it is far from ideal for large Romantic repertoir.

He started the first movement off at a steady, but gentle pace, slowly building up the tension. The quiet contemplation became more assertive, until the gloom was dissipated by the Lux perpetua as the music entered a major key. Then the excitement really got underway with the wondrously brassy introduction to the Dies Irae after which the choir began to express their fears and uncertainties about the Day of Judgement. At the words Tuba mirum brass fanfares sounded from all corners of the cathedral accompanied by frenetic pounding on the drums. The choir sang out for all it was worth, but later reined back the volume at Mors stupebit as if completely taken aback and shocked by the spectacle that was unfolding. The wonderful percussion and brass effects resumed until the arrival of the Judge prompted a sense of awe and renewed uncertainty.

The quieter Quid sum miser brought in a more personal tone with the tenors and basses petitioning Christ to take care of them to cor anglais and bassoon accompaniment. Then it was back to high drama in Rex tremendae majestatis with plenty more input from the brass and the singers expressing even greater anxiety as they pleaded for mercy and delivery from the flames of hell and the lion’s mouth. The placid Quaerens me with its wonderful harmonies offered a note of solace before more horrors unfolded.

And horrific they were as the orchestra and full chorus launched into the extraordinary Lacrymosa in which the music conjured up the growling dogs of hell, the whipping of the cursed, the groans of the accursed. Berlioz’s imagination had really run wild by this stage creating a scene of relentless terror designed to overwhelm the calmest of souls. The composer may not have been religious himself, but he clearly relished the high drama that the vision of hell presented. Its remarkable dissonances seemed more 20th century than 19th and not even the most powerful hell-fire preacher could have exposed the dangers of sinning as luridly as Berlioz.

There were so many good elements in this performance. The solemnity and sincerity of the Offertorium came over well as the chorus prayed for the souls in purgatory. And I was amazed by the remarkable combination for flute and trombone in the Hostias sung by the men. “Berlioz was completely mad!” exclaimed an orchestral player of my acquaintance about such unusual scoring. Unconventional it might be, but it certainly worked in this instance.

It is not until the Sanctus that a solo voice is heard, and after an hour or so of choral and orchestral music it had an extraordinary impact. Lyric tenor Paul Nilon calmed the nerves with Berlioz’ heavenly harmonies, yet it was an informed performance giving the impression that he had too had experienced all the pain and sorrow that had preceded this.  A joyous fugal Osanna from the chorus seemed to restore one to normality. A suitably tender and beautifully rendered Agnus Dei put the seal on an incredible performance both in terms of excitement, emotion and high musical standards, and one of which the two choral societies and their friends, the Philharmonia and Mr Partington can be justly proud.

Roger Jones

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