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Pierre's Tuesday Blog

Berlioz's Grande Messe des Morts

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This month, most of my posts here and on my blog will feature a single work per post, and the series begins with this selection from my podcast vault from last year. In fact, today's work and performance each have a story to tell, and are worth sharing with you.

To begin our peek at Berlioz's Requiem we must beign with the sheer instrumental mass the composer required for his composition: in addition to the large orchestra, tenor soloist, and SSTTBB chorus, Berlioz calls for no fewer than 16 timpani and four extra brass choirs! The forces required to pull this thing off were - it goes without saying - unheard of in the 1830's (we are talking of a Mahlerian scope here) and certainly not for an indoor performance.

Under commissuon by the French ministry of the interior, the Government had already identified a conductor (François-Antoine Habeneck) to lead its creation who - as I understand it - didn't necessarily rise up to the challenge. But even he had to admire the spark of genius and the sheer guts that it took to put that thing on paper. Arguably, the Requiem is Berlioz's second-most famous work, behind his Symphonie Fantastique, though, as one might imagine from its performance requirements, it is not the second-most frequently played work in his catalog...

The Requiem itself is in ten sections and runs in excess of an hour and a quarter. Not all of its music is massive (the extra forces explode onto the scene in the Tuba mirum portion of the Sequence and then disappear), and indeed much of it is quite intimate—for example the slender Quid sum miser, which immediately follows the outburst I just described, or the opening of the Sanctus, which features the solo tenor. And the Requiem ends in absolute tenderness, we mortals can hear only vague echoes in the form of timpani strokes left over from the explosive Last Judgment held earlier in the mass, now distant and gentle.

Sir Colin Davis is recognized as one of the finest and most incisive conductors of Berlioz's music, up there with Ansermet, Monteux, Munch (in the French "old guard") and some of their followers - Dutoit coming to mind. The fact Davis (and Sir Thomas Beecham) ranks in that group without French blood flowing in his veins is a touch of irony that isn't lost on me.

Davis has recorded the Requiem Mass at least three times - and probably more - once in 1969 as part of his now famous Berlioz cycle with the London Symphony for the Philips label, a more recent LSO LIVE Recording with the same orchestra and the live performance that I chose today.


What is noteworthy about that recording is the setting and circumstance. In the night of February 13 1945, the city of Dresden was reduced to ruins by incendiary bombs dropped by the combined English and American air forces, and for the citizens of Dresden, that date, commemorated with annual concerts of suitable works, has taken on an almost religious significance.

The Dresden Staatskapelle may or may not be one of the great Berlioz orchestras—the recorded evidence is slim—it is certainly one of the great European orchestras, and its refined tone, flawless technique, and faultless ensemble is fully on display here. Add to it the overwhelming emotional power and unbearable spiritual intensity of the performance and what you get is truly awe-inspiring. Anyone who likes the work should at least hear this performance. It may or may not turn out to be a favorite when it is all said and done, but it has more potential to move the listener than a performance without the same context.



ITYWLTMT Podcast Montage # 96 – Grande Messe des Morts
(Originally issued on Friday, March 15, 2013)


Hector BERLIOZ (1803-1869)
Grande messe des morts (Requiem Mass), op. 5 (H. 75)
[Text: traditional latin]

Keith Ikaia-Purdy Tenor
Singakademie Dresden
Chor der Dresden Staatsoper
Dresden Symphony Chorus
Staatskapelle Dresden
Sir Colin Davis, conducting




April 4, 2014, "I Think You Will Love This Music Too" will feature a new podcast "Mahler's Third Symphony" at its Pod-O-Matic Channel .Read more April 4 on our blogs in English and in French.
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Updated Apr-01-2014 at 11:34 by itywltmt

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