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Fever of excitement

examines Berlioz' Requiem in a new recording

CD Review
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The Berlioz Requiem was commissioned for performance in Les Invalides, not yet final resting place of Napoleon, with mosaic fiction of the disastrous Moscow campaign as a notable triumph. Yet the Requiem was to be the centrepiece of an important state function, commemorating in 1837 the heroic dead of the 1830 revolution. That was the original idea, but government manoeuvrings deprived the July ceremony of opportunity for a major musical work.

Berlioz had already completed the Requiem, assembled the performers and started rehearsals. Crisis in Algeria, a recurrent French phenonemon, providentially came to his rescue. Casualties during the capture of the hill-top Constantine in October included General Damremont, eminent enough to allow the Ministry of War to revive the Messe des morts idea for 5 December. Berlioz not only enjoyed a successful performance but relished the description of it in his memoirs, particularly the moment when Habeneck, instead of indicating clearly the tempo for the quartet of brass bands at the 'Tuba mirum', resorted to a pinch of snuff.

Berlioz tackled the Requiem text in a fever of excitement. He reordered the words, but at least he could spell them, which is more than can be said for the compiler of the CD notes, where we have the Latin equivalent of the 'Jundiciary singing huymns'. Berlioz's orchestral experiments in the work are notorious. Sometimes they seem more remarkable than effective. It must be said that Verdi's day of judgement, more economically achieved, has greater impact than that of Berlioz, who is yet electrifying enough. (Click to listen.) The composer's audacity in pitting three flutes in the 'Hostias' and four in the 'Agnus Dei' against a lone trombone excavated many octaves below creates intonation problems I defy any conductor to solve. The effect suggests disconsolate wood-birds trying in vain to reach accommodation with a grumpy Fafner. The quiet chords on multiple timpani are again a wonder that raises the whole question of ends and means.

But the Requiem gave Berlioz the chance of a lifetime, and he created it with an intensity unusual even for him: 'My brain felt as though it would explode with the pressure of ideas. The outline of one piece was barely sketched before the next formed itself in my mind. It was impossible to write fast enough, and I devised a sort of musical shorthand which was a great help to me'.

Berlioz Requiem - 8.554494-95. Copyright (C) Naxos 1999The choirs show considerable mastery of Berlioz's subtle and sinuous lines. Only occasionally do the top sopranos quail slightly. The main criticism of the choral singing must be the comparative weakness of the tenor lines, whereas the basses are notably strong. Yet the start of the 'Quid sum miser' (click to listen) gives an admirable idea of what the tenors can manage by themselves, requested by Berlioz to sing 'with a feeling of humility and fear'. It must be considered a major achievement that the quieter sections of the Requiem linger longest in the mind and show the sensitivity of Noel Edison's approach. By contrast, the 'Rex tremendae' with the incandescence Berlioz was after (click to listen). The unaccompanied 'Quaerens me' is Berlioz at his most tender (click to listen) and here the Toronto singers balance admirably. The Requiem has only one soloist, but Michael Schade's expressive tenor in the 'Sanctus' is worth waiting for (click to listen). Berlioz suggested the line might be sung by ten tenors in unison: Schade's expansive lyricism would have banished such an alternative. Berlioz prized the Requiem above his other works; I demur, but can certainly appreciate a version as committed as this.

Copyright © Robert Anderson, July 24th 1999



Michael Schade, tenor
Toronto Mendelssohn Choir and Youth Choir
Elora Festival Orchestra
Noel Edison, conductor

Recorded at the Cathedral of the Transfiguration,
Markham, Ontario, Canada, 8 - 11 November 1998
Producers: Norman Kraft, Bonnie Silver
Engineer: Ed Marshall

Naxos 8.554494-95 (2 CDs)          DDD          86'16

Copyright © 1999 HNH International Ltd.


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