This page presents reviews of the performances that took place in 2014. We would like to express our gratitude to the authors for their invaluable contributions.
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Berlioz: Grande Messe des Morts, Royal Festival Hall
By Peter Payne
Royal Festival Hall 25th September 2014
Esa-Pekka Salonen conductor
Sebastian Droy tenor
Adrian Partington chorus master
Gloucester Choral Society
Bristol Choral Society
It’s not unusual for eager anticipation to accompany news of a performance of Berlioz’ Requiem, however it was on this occasion raised to an above the average level by potentially three factors: having a conductor relatively new to Berlioz but who has featured a major work recently; possibly a first for this work by the Philharmonia Orchestra and most of all a rare rendition in the famously forensic acoustics of the RFH. About the latter there were misgivings to the point of suggesting the concert should have been in an alternative venue more appropriate for the work. In the event the performance mirrored the conditions to give us a measured, thoughtful, didactic but still thrilling presentation. From a visual perspective having the entire ensemble spread out before the audience in such close proximity was quite an edifying spectacle in itself, especially for one more accustomed to experiencing this work from the relatively poor vantage point of a cathedral nave, across the vast space of the Royal Albert Hall or in performance from the ranks of the B1’s.
The four brass choirs were spaced, (1), dead centre in front of the organ seat, (2/3), left and right of the orchestra and, (4, the heaviest with tubas), in the royal box. For the critical Tuba Mirum, (‘pinch of snuff’), moment this arrangement queued for Esa-Pekka a theatrical spin round in the podium. However his directing was manifestly more than for show and from my listening point the effect of the forces in this section, including the timpani and percussion was the best I have yet heard in creating the sense of terror and chaos that Berlioz presumably intended. Possibly helped by the clean acoustics the men’s voices were still well able to project through the hugeness of the orchestral sound.
The excellence of the choral input was a major feature of the performance and for me one of the top highlights was the a cappella Quaerens me sung by a small sub-choir with such precision and clarity I felt I was hearing it for the first time. It had a moving, archaic quality I had not experienced before and when a significant number in the audience, (I’m guessing), were drawn to the works notorious gargantuan passages the atmosphere for this almost private section seemed rapt. On the negative side the Offertorium came over less well, despite a wonderfully strong tone from the Philharmonia’s lower strings, possibly due to a combination of less resonance than a more typical venue would provide and the choir being seated for this section. Minimal resonance may also have been the reason the Lachrymosa, the works emotional climax, seemed to me slightly less overwhelming than anticipated. However throughout, the diction, balance and precision of the choirs was a very telling pleasure. As so often happens the tenor solo in the Sanctus did not match the luminous quality of the women’s voices although his delivery came across as abundantly sincere and supplicant.
Esa-Pekka used the intimacy of the quiet passages to maximum effect in emphasising the enormous dynamic contrasts in the work. The beautifully shaped cor anglais solo in the Quid sum Miser was a telling contribution. Where we would have experienced some reverberation in a more resonant acoustic there was silence but the conductor worked with this to produce clarity without losing structure in what is one of Berlioz ‘architectural’ works. Predictably there were increases in tempi, building almost to warp speed in the Dies Irae but in this section the tenors still coped heroically with their critical tempo changing entry. As one of the chorus was heard to say, post performance, ‘It’s a stupendous work.’
The uniquely elevated atmosphere of Berlioz Requiem is too exotic to be lived with on a day to day basis: every performance is a very special event– a sentiment that applied unequivocally to this performance launching the Philharmonia’s current concert season.
The Hector Berlioz Website was created by Monir Tayeb and Michel Austin on 18 July 1997; Reviews of live performances page created in 1999; completely reorganised on 25 December 2008..
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