Royal Festival Hall
Grande messe des morts, op.5
Sébastien Droy (tenor)
Philharmonia Voices (chorus master: Aidan Oliver)
Gloucester Choral Society (chorus master: Adrian Partington)
Bristol Choral Society (chorus master: Adrian Partington)
Esa-Pekka Salonen (conductor)
It was a little over two years ago that I heard Sir Colin Davis conduct the Berlioz Requiem in St Paul’s Cathedral; it was the last time I heard – or indeed saw – him conduct his beloved and loving London Symphony Orchestra. Irrespective of that hindsight, I found it at the time a magnificent, unforgettable performance, as indeed I wrote, or rather raved, at the time. Life goes on, however, even when it comes to requiem masses. This performance was perhaps never going to live up to the extraordinary nature of that occasion; not only was the greatest Berlioz conductor of all time delivering his valedictory thoughts on the piece, but for once, Wren’s cathedral proved a preferable venue. The Royal Festival Hall was anything but ideal; I could not help but wondering whether a trip, say, to Westminster Cathedral would not have been a good idea. (The problem was not simply a matter of the acoustic, as I shall try to argue below.) Those factors notwithstanding, however, this was in most respects an excellent performance, one which will have doubtless introduced a good few new listeners to this singular work.
The acoustical difference announced itself immediately, with greater orchestral and, perhaps most strikingly, choral clarity. This could almost have been a different work. Performance standards, choral and orchestral, were highly impressive throughout; indeed, just as in St Paul’s, there were no conceivable grounds for complaint in that respect. The ‘Requiem aeternam’ and ‘Kyrie’ benefited from wonderful Philharmonia string playing, especially the expressive vibrato employed and instrumental phrasing (doubtless partly to be credited to Esa-Pekka Salonen too). It was expressive yet taut. This first movement is perhaps not a terribly characteristic movement; the work is arguably not the most characteristic of Berlioz’s œuvre either. Its roots in earlier French music, most of it more or less entirely forgotten by present-day audiences, came through, as did its peculiar novelty. A weird instance of applause following this movement was not, I was grateful, to be repeated.
Cellos and double basses again made a fine impression at the opening of the ‘Dies irae’. Salonen here, as throughout, marshalled his forces very well. Palpable tension as the brass players stood was not entirely fulfilled in reality. I do not think it was any fault of the performance as such, but the effect, despite its deafening, all-too-deafening volume, far too much from where I was seated, paled besides the truer aural perspective and blended sound offered under the St Paul’s dome. Matters were not improved by a telephone ringing as the deafening brass ceased. (Do these people have no shame at all?) Still, there was a very strong impression to be had of the work’s insanity. There was an overwhelming sense of contrast in the following ‘Quid sum miser’: not, quite rightly, repose, but supplication.
The ‘Rex tremendae’ then proved both excitable and exciting. However, it proved a good example of another problem relating to the venue, though perhaps, to a certain extent, to Salonen’s conception. (In truth, it is very difficult to say what exactly was owed to what.) Part of the fascination of this work is its secularism, the strange emptiness at the heart of the work, about which I wrote when discussing the Davis performance. That gains meaning and a truly disconcerting quality when performed not only in a building such as St Paul’s, but also when conducted by a man whose religious and/or philosophical questing is leading him truly to grapple with the difficulties presented by such a work. Salonen was musically very impressive; Davis truly had one think, and experience the implications of crises of faith.
There was relief to be felt thereafter from the a cappella semi-chorus (actually much less than that: probably twenty voices or so) in the ‘Quaerens me’. It was possible to feel a connection with a much older choral tradition, even if the sense of Palestrina were more apparent than ‘real’. Especially memorable was the beautiful halo of sound at the conclusion: ‘Statuens in parte dextra’. The ‘Lacrymosa’ and ‘Domine, Jesu Christe’ have texts I find well-nigh impossible to dissociate from Mozart: my problem, I know. Or at least, it takes a performative wrench to have me forget that greatest of all Requiem settings. Here, Berlioz’s oddness came across strongly, not least the blazing conclusion to the first of the two movements. But it was only really in the second that the anxiety to what is after all an imprecations registered in duly personal – both compositional and theological – fashion.
The ‘Hostias’ benefited from nicely snarling trombones, as well as markedly ‘white’ flutes – and, of course, excellent choral singing. As so often, the ‘Sanctus’ was marred by a tremulous tenor, Sébastien Droy, who was at times somewhat constricted too. A brightly ‘secular’ Hosanna fugue made its point – perhaps a little too strongly. However, the ‘Agnus Dei’ was very impressive, bringing due symmetry with the opening movement. Salonen’s control remained admirable, and there was again delectable menace to the trombones and, more generally, to the bass line. Finally, there came resolution of sorts, though I could not help thinking it more ‘musical’ then ‘theological’ – not so much because Berlioz cannot achieve the latter variety, a point which is at least arguable, but because the performance as a whole never truly engaged with theological issues in the first place.