Berlioz’s Grande messe des morts at Carnegie Hall [Orchestra of St Luke’s/Spano]

Grande messe des morts (Requiem), Op.5

Thomas Cooley (tenor)

Carnegie Hall Festival Chorus; Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chamber Chorus; The Concorde Vocal Ensemble of the York County Senior Honors Choir; Capital Pride of Leesville Road High School

Orchestra of St Luke’s
Robert Spano

Reviewed by: Gene Gaudette

Reviewed: 13 February, 2011
Venue: Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall, New York City

Robert Spano. Photograph: J. D. ScottRobert Spano made a daring decision to perform Berlioz’s “Grande messe des morts” with the sub-grande, large-chamber-sized Orchestra of Saint Luke’s. Berlioz’s “Requiem” calls for tenor, large choral forces, four brass ensembles deployed at various points inside the hall (here two on each side at the front and to the rear of the first tier), and a large orchestra. Spano has already made a very good (if not terribly Gallic) recording of the work with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, Orchestra of Saint Luke’s has been consistently impressive over recent years, and I’ve been impressed by Thomas Cooley’s recordings. With the performers’ pedigrees, what could go wrong? Sadly, too many things, the problems apparent just a few bars past the down-beat.

The small string section of OSL (less than 50 players) was overwhelmed by the other forces. The double bass section of only five players was doing its best, but lent none of the heft to the sound that Berlioz calls for. There were also some moments of shockingly sloppy ensemble from the wind section, perhaps due to Spano’s vague. The brass ensembles were out of sync at both of their entrances in the ‘Dies Irae’, but intonation and detail were impressive, and the effect was thrilling nonetheless. The brass groups were solidly together in subsequent movements.

Thomas Cooley’s voice is not suited to the ‘Sanctus’ – his voice is too heroic — and there were moments of strain in the higher passages, but he did his best to convey the ethereal, spiritual text. Cooley brings real assurance and character to many baroque and classical-era works, and I’d like to hear him tackle Aeneas in Berlioz’s “Les troyens”.

The large choir contained a sizable proportion of student-age singers. They sang with excellent intonation, precision, and beautiful sonorities (including the notoriously difficult soprano passages, which never sounded strained). I was hoping for more enunciation of sibilants and consonants, which were sometimes hard to discern — but given the proportional youth of the participants, many of whom were engaged in their first professional-level performance, it was thoroughly impressive.

The biggest disappointment was the lack of character and drama from movement to movement, with the exception of the second half of the ‘Dies Irae’ (from the Andante maestoso) and Cooley’s ‘Sanctus’. Otherwise, Spano failed to plumb the work’s emotional depths. There were, however, some unexpected portents of requiems to come, particularly Fauré’s masterpiece, in the quieter sections. This account of Berlioz’s “Requiem” was a mixed bag at best, but I still wouldn’t have missed a chance to hear the work in the flesh.

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