Most collectors will be aware of the numerous recordings that JoAnn Falletta has made for the Naxos label, mostly with the Buffalo Philharmonic. She is also music director of the Virginia Symphony Orchestra, which was founded nigh on a century ago and which displays its excellent qualities in Berlioz’s Grande Messe des morts. It is a ground-breaking Requiem, one of the great works in the genre, a piece that – with its extraordinary juxtaposition of deeply meditative writing and grandiose passages – can be profoundly affecting. Commissioned to remember the dead of the 1830 Revolution, the premiere was dedicated to French losses sustained during the 1837 Siege of Constantine.
I imprinted on this work with the first of Charles Munch’s recordings, which has stood the test of time, and this Virginia Festival performance is memorable too, though faster-paced than the Munch (1959 in Boston, eighty-four minutes) or Colin Davis’s St Paul’s Cathedral LSO Live version, which comes in at an amazing ninety-four.
Falletta is palpably at-one with the spiritual dimension of the piece. While the extravagant passages are given their full due (with brass and percussion in stunning form, captured with hair-raising vividness), it is the devotional character that is the main focus. Given with flowing directness, the ‘Requiem and Kyrie’ provides a serene introduction, and the opening of the ‘Dies irae’, darkly intoned by lower strings, gives way to very sensitive choral singing and then the movement is deftly built towards a hugely intense climax. The antiphonal brass bands, and the choirs, achieve the overpowering effect the music demands, while the serene close provides a perfect contrast to the preceding whirlwind. That shift to something more-peaceful continues with ‘Quid sum miser’, in which all involved (especially the excellent woodwinds) conjoin to movingly express Man’s contrition and his hope for deliverance.
In ‘Rex tremendae’ the subtle shifts between exultant praise and earnest supplication are confidently handled; and come the ‘Hostias’ we have flutes, trombones and strings providing a chilling accompaniment. The ‘Sanctus’ is notable for the ardent and sensitive contribution of Robert McPherson, who is up to the demands of the high tessitura, although the quiet cymbals are too reticent, certainly when compared to Thomas Beecham on BBC Legends. The ‘Agnus Dei’ offers much solace and once the final notes have faded, and following several seconds of silence, comes enthusiastic and extended applause, which might to advantage have been omitted. The booklet includes texts and translations.