Berlioz Requiem – New York Philharmonic (12 Feb)

Grande messe des morts – Requiem, Op.5

Paul Groves (tenor)

Westminster Symphonic Choir [Joseph Flummerfelt, Director]

New York Philharmonic
Charles Dutoit

Reviewed by: Susan Stempleski

Reviewed: 12 February, 2003
Venue: Avery Fisher Hall, New York City

The New York Philharmonic kicked its two-season celebration of the 200th-birthday of Berlioz (born December 11, 1803) with four performances of his Grande messe des morts, better known as the Berlioz Requiem. Only one of the performances was for a public audience; the other three were non-public affairs for members of the American Choral Directors Association (ACDA), who were in town for their annual convention. I attended the first in this series of ACDA performances.

First performed at the Chapel of Les Invalides in 1837, the Requiem is conceived on the grandest of scales. The score calls for a four-part chorus of 200 and more than 100 strings, with wind and brass elements to match. In a footnote to the score, Berlioz suggests using as many as 800 singers in the larger movements. While the combined choral and orchestral forces at Charles Dutoit’s disposal were not quite that colossal, he nevertheless conducted a magnificent performance which brought out the drama of the piece as well as the distinct architecture of each melodic line and harmony.

The Westminster Symphonic Choir supplied slightly more than 200 singers for this Philharmonic performance. Beginning with the opening phrases of the Requiem and Kyrie, their singing was immediate and thrilling throughout. In the Sanctus, the sole movement in the work that uses a solo tenor voice, Paul Groves was superb, using his bright, ringing lyric tenor voice to great dramatic effect.

The orchestral playing was marvelous, especially the strings and the winds which, in spite of the often prominent brass and choral forces, sounded particularly fine. As expected, the most awe-inspiring moment came at the onset of the Tuba mirum, near the middle of the Dies Irae, with the well co-ordinated entrance of four supplementary brass choirs, followed by the entrance of the chorus men over the thunderous rolls of four sets of timpani. Berlioz’s score specifies that the brass groups are to be stationed “at the four corners of the large choral and instrumental mass.”In this performance, the quadraphonic effect intended by Berlioz was somewhat lessened by the decision to place the brass choirs at only two corners of the listening space, specifically the front boxes on the first two tiers of the hall. At best, Avery Fisher Hall is a poor substitute for Les Invalides, but I can’t help thinking that a better-sounding space would have resulted from placing the brass groups farther apart.

All in all, this was a fine performance, full of drama and beautiful musicianship, if somewhat lacking in more massive effects.

  • This performance was followed by two more non-public performances on February 13 and 15, and a regular Philharmonic subscription performance on February 14
  • New York Philharmonic

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