Berlioz’s Grande messe des morts – Paul McCreesh [Gabrieli Consort & Wrocław Philharmonic; Signum Classics]

0 of 5 stars

Grande Messe des morts (Requiem), Op.5

Robert Murray (tenor)

Chetham’s School of Music Symphonic Brass Ensemble
Gabrieli Consort & Players
Wrocław Philharmonic Choir & Orchestra
Paul McCreesh

Recorded 13-15 September 2010 in Mary Magdalene Church, Wrocław, Poland

Reviewed by: Mark Valencia

Reviewed: November 2011
SIGCD280 (2 CDs)
Duration: 1 hour 29 minutes



Contrary to received wisdom, Hector Berlioz was not obsessed with gargantuanism. His Requiem of 1837 is not an over-inflated monster by a self-aggrandising showman. The French composer’s fascination with massive forces in large spaces was technical, prompted by a desire to explore the impact in vast acoustics not just for thunderous outbursts but of near-silence. Berlioz-sceptics might usefully reflect on the magical cymbal touches he uses, sparingly, during the ‘Sanctus’ (and later re-uses in ‘Tibi omnes’ in the Te Deum); they spider out into the air that surrounds them, barely audible yet eerie and unmistakable within the resonant amplitude. It’s an effect that raises hairs on the neck, not hackles, and this scholarly performance by Paul McCreesh and his Anglo-Polish forces has the work’s full measure. If McCreesh’s account overwhelms the listener, as it does, forget sensationalism; the reasons are purely musical.

A sound-only carrier cannot conjure the visual expectancy that rank upon rank of choristers and players awakens in an audience. Yet from this imposing spectacle no opening blare is heard; instead, a diffident, rising string figure is stated in a minor key, then repeated and extended twice, almost hesitantly, in an orchestral introduction that is pregnant with incipient drama. It’s a model of restraint; only three sections of the score employ the full panoply of instruments, and Berlioz is in no hurry to parade them. At the first choral entry McCreesh allows the sopranos to savour the acoustic awhile, skimming a hand to ripple the surface, before he takes the plunge and unleashes the full potential of his forces. As elsewhere, McCreesh’s speeds and intensity are ideally paced: calm yet sweetly shaped and controlled as he propels the score forward.

This is a remarkable release; but caveat emptor, because if it is possible for a musician to be over-authentic, Paul McCreesh is your man. He takes erudition to a distracting level with his decision to use French Latin pronunciation (Robert Murray, the eloquent and impassioned tenor, sings “Sanctus” as “Sarnc-tys”, and “coeli” as “seeli”). The ear adjusts after a while, but was it really necessary? And while it may be valid, as McCreesh has explained, to place the quartet of brass ensembles at the four corners of the orchestra rather than at the extremities of the building, it cannot be denied that by attenuating the expansiveness he diminishes the impact. (It seems unlikely that Berlioz, the composer who took antiphonal effects to their limit, would not have relished the ineffable power of spatial extremes, and experienced in a great cathedral such moments are beyond stirring.) Still, at least the compact layout allows the brass players to be heard precisely in time, which is not always the case when they are placed leagues apart.

Taken as a whole, this is an intelligent and supremely memorable reading. As well as offering a musically limpid interpretation, constantly sensitive to the Requiem text as liturgy, not merely as an aural spectacular, the recording is a model of engineering. The young, supple-voiced choirs are enveloped in a rich acoustic bloom, atmospheric without being recessed, and the vast arrays of instrumentalists (all are named in the booklet) are heard with individuality yet cohesion. Whereas some conductors drive the score like a super-tanker, content just to achieve momentum, McCreesh reflects on every bar and inflects each nuance with taste and good judgement. Far from being a monster, this Grande messe des morts is a thing of unexpected delicacy and beauty. There’s a new quality, too, that shines out from this much-maligned epic: devotional integrity.

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