United Kingdom Berlioz: Toby Spence (tenor), Crouch End Festival Chorus, London Philharmonic Choir, BBC Symphony Chorus, BBC Symphony Orchestra/François-Xavier Roth (conductor), Royal Albert Hall, London, 13.11.2016. (AS)
Berlioz – Grande messe des morts Op.5
The point I was going to make as an opening statement in this review had already been made for me by the concert programme’s introduction: that the Royal Albert Hall is the ideal venue for Berlioz’s setting of the Requiem Mass. Its vast space and resonant acoustic are really needed to accommodate the work’s large orchestral forces, which include ten sets of timpani, 12 horns, 12 trumpets and 12 trombones – the latter partly placed in groups spaced antiphonally in the hall away from the main orchestra. But were there four such groups, as specified by Berlioz, on this occasion? I could only perceive two, placed opposite each other high up in the hall just in front of the main ensemble. No matter if this was the case, for in the ‘Dies Irae’ particularly the antiphonal effects were aurally thrilling: an extraordinarily potent assault on the ears, finely controlled y François-Xavier Roth.
Such a huge instrumental force demands a correspondingly large body of singers to provide adequate balance, and so three major London choirs were engaged. In ensemble this mighty vocal group made a fine sound, especially the men, but it was at once apparent in the opening ‘Kyrie’ that precise attack and totally accurate tuning were not to be forthcoming from the soprano section. This is harsh criticism in a way, for Berlioz makes great technical demands on his singers, and amateur performers were, after all, involved. But it only takes one or two lesser vocal contributors to blur and discolour the efforts of the vast majority, and such a thing was rather evident at crucial points in the performance.
Maximillian Schmitt, the advertised tenor soloist, had had to withdraw from the performance, and at short notice his place was taken by Toby Spence. The soloist doesn’t have much opportunity to shine, since his contribution is confined briefly to the ‘Sanctus’. Spence sang out with a good deal of spirit from the back of the orchestra, but there was a slight sense of strain in his projection, particularly in the upper register.
Overseeing all was the impeccable guiding hand of François-Xavier Roth. Nearly all of the Messe is slow or moderate in pulse, but this was only apparent from the programme’s reproduction of the tempo indications for each of the ten sections. Roth projected the music with not only the technical control previously noted, but with a fine sense of the music’s line and shape. Never at any point did the musical argument seem other than vividly brought to life: the complex rhythms of parts of the ‘Lacrimosa’, so extraordinarily forward looking for 1837, were defined by Roth with absolute clarity. Throughout the work his judgment of tempo was immaculate: it can’t be easy to provide effective contrast and a sense of continual freshness within such a restricted range of prescribed speeds.
With such extravagant and no doubt expensive forces involved, and with the degree of choral preparation that is no doubt needed, live presentations of this marvellous work will always be rare. But even those for whom Berlioz is not a favourite composer must surely find it difficult to resist its extraordinary vision and inspired invention, so effectively realised by Roth and his numerous colleagues on this occasion.