The vast canyons of St Paul’s Cathedral may be a wonder to behold but acoustically they are (forgive the expression) the very devil. Sounds weave their way up the columns and waft around the vaulting before nestling for variable periods in corners, crannies and cupolas. One of the few works of music hardy enough to survive in this hostile environment is Grande Messe des morts, for the simple reason that Berlioz originally conceived it for the comparably spacious Église des Invalides in Paris. So massive in concept is this great Requiem that even today it can knock your socks off.
Even so, the sonic vagaries of St Paul’s mean that each individual seated in the packed nave will have experienced the performance differently from everyone else. From my own unfortunate vantage point (underneath the dome, a few feet lower than the orchestra and practically within touching distance of Sir Colin Davis and the principal cellist) the sound balance was so badly compromised that detailed analysis would be meaningless. What follows is therefore an impression.
Berlioz composed Grande Messe for orchestra, chorus and building, and Sir Colin conducted all three elements with supreme musicianship. Slow on his feet but intellectually as spry as ever, the composer’s foremost living authority marshalled his forces with the utmost control; his interpretation erred to the stately but he never lost sight of the sprawling score’s architecture, even as he tamed the cathedral’s own. Unforgettable moments stand out: the fractured figures that accompany the ‘Recordare’; the immaculate a cappella
singing of the combined London Symphony Chorus and London Philharmonic Choir in ‘Quaerens me’; the serrated-edge sting of the strings beneath the ‘Lacrimosa’.
Barry Banks brought a haunting, keening quality to the ‘Sanctus’, his crystal tones filling the Cathedral with an almost Muezzin-like timbre. What a pity that Berlioz chose to append a fugal “Hosanna” to that movement, for it is the only episode in the entire score where his musical imperatives outweigh practical considerations, and the echoing noise that results can either sound cacophonous or (as here, and the lesser of two evils) muddy.
The four off-stage brass ensembles made their usual spatial impact, as did no fewer than twenty timpanists and percussion players on the platform. However, for all the score’s hugeness (it counts its forces in battalions) it’s always the silences that carry the most weight in this work. How powerfully the intimate moments resonate in such a space! Even in stillness the earth moved.