Classical CD Reviews

New classical music releases reviewed in detail by Gavin Dixon

Thursday, 27 October 2011

Berlioz Requiem McCreesh

Hector BERLIOZ (1803-1869)
Grande Messe des Morts (1837) [88:42]
Robert Murray (tenor)
Gabrieli Players & Consort
Chetham’s School of Music Symphonic Brass Ensemble
Wrocław Philharmonic Choir & Orchestra/Paul McCreesh
rec. Mary Magdalene Church, Wrocław, 13-15 September 2010
Latin text and English and Polish translations included
SIGNUM CLASSICS SIGCD280 [48:25 + 40:17]
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The word 'ambitious' doesn't even come close to describing this inaugural release on Paul McCreesh's Winged Lion label. The Berlioz Requiem is a gargantuan work, and while it does get its fair share of performances, most rely heavily on amateur performers, and so don't reach the musical standards required of a commercial recording. But the number competent performers required is only one of McCreesh's problems, as he has chosen to record the work in Poland, and on predominantly period instruments. All of these issues have bearing on the results, but on the whole his collaborative, international approach pays off handsomely.
For all the considerable merits of this recording, the benchmark Berlioz Requiem is still the Colin Davis/LSO version of 1969 (Philips 416 283-2). But the differences between the two readings are such that we are hardly comparing like with like. In fact, hearing McCreesh's version puts the Davis interpretation in a whole new light. Davis achieves gravity in this music through steady and, on whole, slightly slower tempos. He also uses modern instruments, and has a smaller choir and a dryer acoustic (the recording was made in Westminster Cathedral). The cleanliness and clarity of the sound all work in Davis' favour.
But McCreesh is after something else. His choir is truly enormous, his orchestra mixes period and modern instruments (predominantly period instruments, but with the strings bolstered with modern instrument players) and, most significantly of all, the recording is made in the very resonant Mary Magdalene Church in Wrocław. He achieves a much more Gothic sound, more thundering in the Dies Irae, and more vulnerable in the quiet movements, especially the Quid sum miser and the Offertoire. Paul McCreesh talks in his liner note interview about the paradox in the work between its liturgical and operatic identities. By comparison with Davis' very operatic reading, McCreesh has made an excellent job of reclaiming its liturgical side.
His tempos are surprisingly fluid, especially given the size of the forces he is coordinating. The drama in many of the movements, especially the Dies Irae, is significantly increased through subtly graded tempo changes. McCreesh is more faithful than Davis to Berlioz' many articulation and dynamic markings. The orchestration and chord voicing in much of this music is very strange indeed, and McCreesh makes no effort to normalise or flatten out these anomalies. The results seem truer to the composer's conception.
The sheer size of the forces here means that coordination is never going to be absolutely precise, and that is the main virtue that Davis has over McCreesh. It is a tricky balance with a work of this scale, you either have a choir big enough to shake the earth or one modest enough to maintain the intonation and ensemble you are after. And in a sense, the slight inaccuracies of the massed choral singing increase the sense of scale. Without actually having been there, the listener gets a better idea of the sheer size of the performing group from its occasionally approximate synchronisation. The tenors in the choir sometimes struggle with the higher notes, but again, when this happens it seems that Berlioz is deliberately stretching them for dramatic effect. On the other hand, the tenor soloist, Robert Murray, is ideal in the Sanctus. He gives a beautifully lyrical and French-sounding performance, briefly recapturing the operatic side of the work.
There are some revelations in the orchestral playing that you'll never get from modern instruments. The woody woodwind solos all have real character. The hybrid string section plays with minimal vibrato, but with sufficient power, especially at the lower end, to balance what is going on behind. But it is the brass and percussion that are truly revelatory. Narrow bore trombones can sound dreadful in the wrong hands, but here they sound just great, bringing real focus to the Tuba Mirum and a wonderful earthy quality to the pedals in the Hostias. The horns are often required to play stopped notes and various other constrained and muted sounds. The narrow bore instruments here achieve those effects far better than any modern instruments. And in the percussion, the small tinny cymbals add a fascinating colour, while the period timpani increases the percussive quality and reduces the resonance and fixed pitch of their sound.
The packaging is unusual. The discs come in a shiny silver slip case, which when you turn it over gives the full info in Polish. It's all very innovative, although I do have a few small grumbles. The two exterior faces are identical, so you are actually reading the text inside before you have worked out if it is the English or the Polish side you are looking at. When you have worked that out, there is no track listing on offer (Disc 2 begins at the Offertoire if you're interested), and the catalogue number is only given on the underside of the discs. Hugh Macdonald's liner note, informative as it is, is just a rehash of his preface to the 1978 Bärenreiter score.
Nevertheless, this release is a very promising start of Paul McCreesh's new recording enterprise. As the many Mahler 8s that are appearing on the market at the moment demonstrate, it can be very difficult for a conductor to make his mark on a very large scale work. The practicalities of performance usually end up ironing out the interpretive individuality. But McCreesh has done something genuinely new and interesting with the Berlioz Requiem. If future releases on Winged Lion are as distinctive and accomplished as this, it promises to be one of the more worthwhile of the many own-label projects currently taking over the market.

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