Recorded 25 & 26 June 2012 in St Paul's Cathedral, London
CD No: LSO LIVE LSO0729 (2 CDs) Duration: 1 hour 34 minutes Reviewed: April 2013
LSO Live – Colin Davis conducts Berlioz’s Grande Messe des morts at St Paul's Cathedral
Reviewed by Mark Valencia
With this account of the Grande Messe des morts the good shepherd bids farewell to Berlioz – at least as far as his celebrated LSO Live series is concerned. Sir Colin Davis has kept watch over Berlioz’s music through stormy times, when the winds of fashion would have abandoned him, as well as in fairer weather, and it is thanks to him more than anyone else that the composer’s reputation stands as high as it now does. In this late-flowering cluster of recordings we may bemoan the lack of a Grande symphonie funèbre et triomphale, or a Lélio, and certainly the Te Deum (although two Davis performances of this were recorded for LSO Live in February 2009 but never issued), yet let us celebrate what we have: tremendous new readings of Berlioz’s finest large-scale works.
The two concerts in Saint Paul’s Cathedral in June 2012 upon which this recording is based were colossal events. I attended the first of them and have rarely been so moved by the magnificence of stately music superbly rendered. LSO Live has captured the moment with remarkable fidelity. Saint Paul’s Cathedral is a notoriously tricky location yet producer James Mallinson and his team gather up all the myriad noises that wove through the wide open spaces and achieve a cohesively truthful sound picture with ne’er a sniff (nor indeed a cough) from the packed audience. It must have been like catching feathers in a sandstorm. The finished product is the most ideal rendering of Berlioz’s aural panoply I have yet heard: it has amplitude, depth and resonance, yet every detail shines through.
The combined London Philharmonic Choir and London Symphony Chorus respond to Davis’s conducting as a single entity, the singers’ exquisitely blended textures melting into the acoustic. The tenors and basses show glorious control at “Te decet hymnus” in the opening ‘Requiem aeternam’, while the great ‘Lacrymosa’ – an epic on five lines of text – has rarely sounded more arresting. Even the ‘Offertoire’, which can outstay its welcome in a more routine account of the Requiem, emerges as a fervent prayer offered up with restraint and near-stillness.Bel canto specialist Barry Banks is an inspired choice for the ‘Sanctus’ and the distanced recording adds rapture to his limpid tenor as it keens its way through the Cathedral like a seraphic prayer. The London Symphony Orchestra revels in its role, producing colours of the utmost richness and fielding an unbuttoned quartet of brass bands (which David Cairns refers to as an “apocalyptic armoury”) to make hair-raising interventions.
Davis achieves a kind of alchemy in allowing long, relaxed phrases to unfold in lyrical comfort yet with a real sense of urgency. The composer helps with his propensity for extended top lines underpinned by rhythmic bass interpolations, for example in ‘Querens me’. Throughout the performance (as was clear from his unforced manner on the night) Davis resists any temptation to exploit the acoustic in pursuit of a sonic spectacular. That side of things is allowed to look after itself. Lesser mortals would be tempted to play the cathedral; Sir Colin Davis plays the score.