United States Berlioz: Paul Groves (tenor), San Francisco Symphony Chorus, Young Women’s Choral Projects of San Francisco, Golden Gate Men’s Chorus, San Francisco Symphony / Charles Dutoit (conductor), Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco. 4.5.2017. (HS)
Although the Berlioz Requiem has a reputation for its moments of loudness, the San Francisco Symphony’s performance led by conductor Charles Dutoit left the opposite impression. It’s extraordinary how gentle the whole thing can be in the hands of a conductor who knows the work inside and out, feels its ebbs and flows, and relishes the gorgeous quiet moments as much as the big, showy ones.
With the exception of the Tuba mirum, Berlioz intentionally goes against tradition in this score. The four brass choirs stationed around the edges of the stage gear up for that moment in Tuba mirum, and it’s a doozy, with oratorical fanfares spreading and soaring around the orchestra. Lacrymosa, in most masses a quiet salve, revs up the brass and percussion again.
But in most of this work, even portions of the mass that most other composers rendered with fortissimo intensity, Berlioz finds an almost tender piety. Where other composers make a joyful outburst of Kyrie eleison, Berlioz lulls us with subtle murmurs. His music sways gently in the Dies irae, which spurred Mozart and Verdi into some of their most dramatic, outsized music. Here it’s the lull before a storm to come, only minutes later, in Tuba mirum.
Dutoit coaxed gorgeous colors from the orchestra and extraordinarily fine singing from both the San Francisco Symphony Chorus and the Young Women’s Chorus of San Francisco. It’s intensely moving to hear so many voices singing pianissimo, as they do in the Kyrie and later in the Mors stupebit. The hushed beauty of Quaerens me, sung a capella, glowed with peacefulness.
In the Offertorium, the chorus’ stop-and-start phrases evoked halting prayer and expanded seamlessly into six-part polyphony at the finish. Tenor soloist Paul Groves spun vocal liquid into a supple texture in a gorgeous Sanctus, aided and abetted by more finely wrought quiet singing from the chorus.
Dutoit’s command of pace and dynamics felt sure-handed, allowing freedom of expression within a clear framework. The several fugues seemed to grow and flower, expanding organically under his baton. Leading his own reduction in orchestral forces, Dutoit found ideal balances in both subdued and more overt sections. Tuba mirum lost nothing in muscularity for its attention to legato and persuasive momentum, and Lacrymosa similarly made its big statements without crashing, all the more powerful for these elements of restraint.
The final movement, Agnus Dei, wove together richly sustained chords with wisps of material from earlier sections before drifting away to a heart-stopping pianissimo.