Requiem (Grande Messe des morts), Op.5
Toby Spence (tenor)
BBC National Chorus of Wales
Huddersfield Choral Society
London Symphony Chorus
BBC National Orchestra of Wales
Reviewed by: Simon Thomas
Reviewed: 11 August, 2012
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London
BBC Proms 2012 includes just two works by Berlioz, but both are monumental: Les Troyens and Grande Messe des morts. Berlioz was not alone in writing public work on a grand scale. There was quite a fashion for it in the 1830s, with Gossec, Méhul and Berlioz’s own teacher Le Sueur making similar contributions. Berlioz’s Requiem was commissioned to commemorate the fallen of the 1830 July Revolution but was eventually performed to mark a different occasion in 1837 at Les Invalides, which appropriately was soon to become the final resting place of Napoleon Bonaparte.
If the resources required for this spectacular work are huge – including 108 strings, multiple choirs and four offstage brass bands – the composer uses his battalions sparingly and much of the scoring is smaller-scale and intimate. Despite the massed choirs, there’s only one solo vocalist, in this case Toby Spence (returning to the Proms two nights after the Ivor Novello concert), who seemed ill-at-ease with the high-lying writing in the ‘Sanctus’, the only movement of the ten to require the tenor.
The dynamic contrasts of the work are enormous. The unleashing of the awe-inspiring banks of timpani, cymbals and brass of the ‘Tuba mirum’ are followed immediately by the hushed tenors of ‘Quid sum miser’, recalling Berlioz’s other contemplative masterpiece, L’Enfance du Christ. Even within sections, there are huge dynamic sweeps, such as the gradual escalation of sound in the ‘Lacrimosa’, emphasised with meticulous care by Thierry Fischer and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales. (Fischer was conducting his final concert as Principal Conductor of BBCNOW.)
The full antiphonal possibilities that can be achieved, particularly in a building such as the Royal Albert Hall, were missed by having all the brass together, rather than dotted around the venue, as specified by Berlioz. Tempos were on the sluggish side, from the slowest of openings of the ‘Introit’, and particularly the final ‘Agnus Dei’. But the combined choirs matched anything heard so far this season in terms of quality, with wonderful pianissimos and delicate textures in the a cappella ‘Quarens me’, here spellbinding.
At the Requiem’s close, the silence following the ultimate bars was among the longest this reviewer can remember (and the RAH was packed), with none of the immediate and insensitive eruptions of clapping that Proms concerts sometimes have to suffer.