Berlioz – Grande Messe des morts.
Barry Banks (tenor)
London Philharmonic Choir, London Symphony Chorus
London Symphony Orchestra / Colin Davis.
St Paul’s Cathedral, London. Tuesday, June 26th, 2012.
I first came across the music of Berlioz as a teenager growing up in Montréal. I was lucky to be living in a city where we had the presence of the greatest ‘French’ orchestra in the world and where Charles Dutoit’s revelatory performances introduced many to the wonders of his music. The first piece I came across was Les Troyens and I was hooked. I then came to know the Grande messe des morts and this I listened to on a loop for months. While I write this blog in English, I grew up bilingually and I always feel that Berlioz is a French composer and as a prolific writer, Berlioz’ vocal music always seems to be completely married to the text that he is setting.
Fast forward a few years and last month I found myself in Vienna. At Stephansplatz, I could see that they were restoring the cathedral. They are removing years of grime and dirt and several of the facades are brand new and look like they were always supposed to look. Last year, I heard Paul McCreesh’s version of the Grande messe and I had exactly the same feeling as I did looking at that cathedral. I finally got to hear a masterpiece exactly as it should be heard. The tempi are well chosen, he brings out internal voices and influences that are normally hidden but most of all the singers use pronunciation close to what Berlioz would have expected. It’s not perfect – but it’s close.
The whole point of this long introduction is that this piece is one that I love and have known for years. It has seen me through many difficult moments but it also means that I have very high expectations for performances. Contrary to Les Troyens, I have been to very few live performances of this work. There was Dutoit in Montréal of course, Davis at the Proms a decade ago, Gergiev and the CBSO in 2009(?) and a dreary performance conducted by Runnicles in Berlin in 2008. Colin Davis has done more than any other living musician to revive interest in Berlioz’ music and in many ways, despite the acoustical problems, St Paul’s is an ideal venue for this piece. So hopes were certainly high for this performance.
I was very lucky in my seat as I was seated in the front nave and the sound was excellent. This may cloud my judgment as those who were seated further back might have experienced a different performance. The first thing that became clear was that Davis knew exactly how to work the building – pauses were judged perfectly in order to allow the echo to resonate around the building. What I felt was that tempi were not quite as well judged. The opening dragged horribly – there was no inner energy pushing it onwards. The orchestra played well but the chorus was initially tentative and some entries were not unanimous. The tuba mirum sounded fantastic, the brass glorious and the effect of the percussion was earth shattering. Yet it felt flat – this is music that needs to be pushed forward, it’s excessive music – there are four brass bands and 16 timps, yet Davis’ calm restraint just failed to do it justice. I feel that had the tempo just been picked up a notch or two it would have been incredible and it wouldn’t have turned into aural mush. The same for the lacrymosa – it just sagged horribly with a complete lack of an inner pulse or rhythmic impetus to push the music forward.
Where the performance succeeded though was in the quieter more reflective moments. The domine was beautifully done as was the hostias. The sanctus benefitted from the wonderful Rossini tenor of Barry Banks. He was perfect casting in the part, the voice free and easy. I just wish that Davis had placed him high up in the gallery. What really worked though was the closing pages – the choral tone hanging on the air and the sound of those timpani echoing through the dome, Berlioz’ image of the hereafter hovering through the building. That is my abiding memory of the concert and will stay with me for a long time.
The chorus sang heroically. Yes they could have done with more tenors and some entries were not quite unanimous at first but once they got into their stride they gave everything to the piece. I wish Davis had done more to bring out those inner voices in the way that McCreesh does (for example the tenor line in the dies irae as it builds up towards the tuba mirum). The orchestra played well – the brass were fantastic – and the strings also distinguished themselves in those sustained passages towards the end.
Overall for me, this was an interesting performance. By the end I was fulfilled but the journey getting there was not quite completely satisfying. Davis recently ranted about period performance practices but if he had used some of them in this performance (the French Latin for example) this may well have been even more engaging.