Chor des Norddeutschen Rundfunks
Kölner Rundfunk-Sinfonie-Orchester [Cologne Radio Symphony Orchestra]
Recorded 26 August 1956 in Saal 1, Funkhaus, Cologne
CD No: ICA CLASSICS ICAC 5075 Duration: 82 minutes Reviewed: September 2012
ICA Classics – Dimitri Mitropoulos conducts Berlioz’s Grande Messe des morts
Reviewed by Mark Valencia
Imagine a fabulous gem that’s been given a slipshod setting then buried in a cake of mud for generations. It may appear unappealing on the surface, yet beneath the aesthetic ignominy the jewel remains intact. So it is with this exceptional account of Berlioz’s Grande Messe des morts from Cologne forces under Dimitri Mitropoulos, a fine conductor whose career was poorly represented on disc in his lifetime but whose second recording of the work this now is (it follows in the wake of a contemporaneous live performance from Vienna, Orfeo d’Or 457971).
While no radio broadcast nearly sixty years old could possibly do justice to the sonic expanses of Berlioz’s vast canvas, the recorded sound on this issue raises more hairs than hackles thanks to a superb re-mastering by Dirk Franken of WDR that has been generously squeezed onto an 82-minute disc by ICA Classics.
Not much could be done to correct the original broadcast’s microphone placements, though, which do little to flatter the already sour sound of some poorly-tuned sopranos and altos of the Cologne choirs. Individual voices, some of them blighted by the untamed wobble of a wayward dewlap, leap from the choral texture like lumps in porridge. Within the orchestra, too, the limited dynamic range means that great moments go for little: for instance, the muted cymbals in the ‘Sanctus’ – an effect of which Berlioz was proud and reused to comparable effect in the Te Deum and elsewhere – barely register.
This first release, though, is indispensable for any admirer of the Grande Messe, and not merely as a historical document. Mitropoulos’s reading is unusually cohesive: its momentum never sags, his attention to detail is remarkable and the cumulative power proves electrifying. At the close of the ‘Kyrie’ a steam train could be hurtling towards the listener, such is the impetus; in the ‘Dies irae’, the marching rhythm at “Quantus tremor” has the nightmarish drive of an unstoppable army.
Notwithstanding the shortcomings of its provenance, both technical and choral, this release is self-recommending to all those who love this work, while even out-and-out Berlioz doubters may find themselves stirred by its many merits. The mono sound may be primitive, yet the four eloquent brass ensembles cut through the aural picture on their every appearance with a remarkable sense of space, while the young Nicolai Gedda sings an especially moving if closely balanced ‘Sanctus’ with seraphic power and tonal beauty. A diamond in the rough this recording may be, but it is a diamond nonetheless.