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Berlioz: Grande Messe des morts - Norrington

Berlioz: Grande Messe des morts - Norrington

Hänssler Classic  093.131.000 (2 discs)

Stereo/Multichannel Hybrid

Classical - Vocal


Berlioz: Requiem Op. 5

Toby Spence (tenor)
SWR Vokalensemble Stuttgart
MDR Rundfunkchor Leipzig
Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart des SWR
Roger Norrington (conductor)


Sir Roger Norrington continues his Berlioz cycle (L’Enfance du Christ and the Symphonie fantastique are already released) with the SWR orchestra with this account of the Requiem with tenor Toby Spence.

Berlioz’s Mass of the Dead is a masterpiece written in his youth in 1837 but thirty years later Berlioz wrote “If I were force to burn all my life’s work with the exception of a single score, I would plead for the Requiem to be spared”.

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Review by John Broggio - May 15, 2006

This is the début recording on SACD from Hänssler Classics and Sir Roger Norrington and what a début it is! I sincerely hope that this amazing set will lead to other SACD's from this source in similar repertoire (well, some more Berlioz anyway – nothing else in the whole of music is remotely like this Requiem!)

There are other versions of this extraordinary work on SACD:
Berlioz: Grande Messe des morts / Mahler: Symphony No. 1 - Abravanel, Berlioz: Grande Messe des morts / Mahler: Symphony No. 1 - Abravanel, Berlioz: Grande Messe des morts - Spano, Berlioz: Grande Messe des morts - Munch. I have not heard the Abravanel version in either release but this reading must trump both the Spano or Munch discs; either because the reading is so much more involving than Spano’s disc for Telarc or the Munch for the simple reason that this is music that simply has to be heard in multi-channel surround sound to fully appreciate the majesty of the writing (especially in the Dies Irae, Tuba Mirum with the spaced brass groups placed all around the listener).

This recording was made in concert and after a respectful pause; the audience (who are only otherwise audible in, literally, one or two moments during the piece) break the spell with appropriately reverential applause. That it was a single concert (and what a concert!) doubtless helps the concentration of the musicians to portray the hypnotic effect and majesty of the music.

The reading is very involving throughout, and although some moments on first hearing are taken at unconventional tempi, the whole hangs together very well indeed. The first aspect of this reading that immediately stood out to me (and still does on repeated listening) are the contrasts in the timbres that Norrington elicits from all; there are big, big sounds in the Dies Irae, Tuba Mirum which are pared down to a (purposefully & “French”) thin early-19th century sound. The latter is particularly effective in the Sanctus. The aforementioned Dies Irae, Tuba Mirum also has some wonderful moments, particularly around the massed timpani “solos” where the chords are heard most clearly (thanks in part to the careful attention that Norrington and his percussionists pay to the markings of dynamics).

Starting with the Requiem (Introitus) – Kyrie, the mood is pensive with gradually emboldened orchestral entries before a doleful entry of the basses contrasts wonderfully with the angelic-like sopranos. The mood gradually lightens as the movement progresses, with Norrington handling the woodwind and chorus particularly well. As the music slowly descends in pitch and dynamic, after a final outburst, the scene is set for the massive outpouring of sound that is Dies Irae, Tuba Mirum.

The Dies Irae, Tuba Mirum (unlike Mozart before and Verdi afterwards) starts innocuously enough, with the opening phrase reaching out from the depths of the orchestra. Here though, the angels have the first say, in pleading phrases before the unhappy souls once again sing as if for redemption. Norrington paces this introduction to the orchestral eruptions that follow with, and I do not use this phrase lightly, absolute genius with the tension ratcheted ever upwards. As is noticeable throughout the piece, the (offbeat) string accents are prominent without disturbing the flow of the music. Finally, the tension dissipates itself with the massive outpouring from the massed brass choirs (spaced all around as they surely must be in any performance worth its salts); these fanfares are somewhat slower than I was used to but Norrington manages to them a wonderful sense of weight without being sluggish in any way before building to the massed timpani rolls (the chords are actually identifiable here and the accents are very well done). Indeed, compared to Spano, Norrington is nearly 9 minutes slower in his conception of the Requiem but feels more captivating because he understands the shock of the music. Fortunately, Norrington allows the tension to subside a little before once more turning the screw to torture the dammed once more in front the judge, with the reappearance of massed timpani and brass choirs and extra percussion. The playing & singing is absolutely superb with only one or two minor lapses of ensemble (and for a sole performance and such large forces, this is exceptional). The movement is allowed to end in reflective calm and repose.

The Quid Sum Miser opens with a wistful tune in the woodwind, rendered with a beautifully French sound answered by the lower strings and male voices. Norrington then introduces the Rex Tremendae with wonderful choral articulation, matched by very beautiful playing in the strings. The mood quickly gets very tense and thanks to the space that Norrington gives the opening, the more urgent music is not rushed. The beautiful setting of “mercy” is then sharply contrasted against the cries to the King.

The following a cappella Quaerens Me is ravishingly beautiful and sung with touching ardour from the choirs before the quite incredible Lacrymosa comes fitfully staggering into being. The opening syncopations are executed with such panache and style that one really hears them as if for the first time. Not for the first time in this piece, Norrington conducts with absolute brilliance with the orchestra & choruses responding with great vigour yet sensitivity. Even after the music settles into a more conventional mode (Berlioz never really did conventional!) the tension is gradually built up, superbly paced as always on this set. After a short while, the music can restrain itself no more and Norrington’s forces really let rip; I am surprised that the drum skins didn’t break and the chorus & brass didn’t have to stop immediately after this! The final climax, with the flashing cymbals, is superbly captured before the music ends on a small glimmer of hope. [Fortunately we now have to change discs otherwise there might be a call for a cardiologist!]

The Offertorium is a fugal movement, the theme heard mainly in the strings with commentary from the chorus and jolts of woodwind and brass chords that represent bells. Norrington, once more, paces this movement with great care and the music is allowed to speak for itself but that is not to imply that the reading is bland in any way. As the textures become more complex, the fugal material is transfigured under Norrington into more turbulent outbursts from woodwind and brass alike. The chorus have a curiously flat part to sing here but they still manage to do this with great care and make it sound interesting. The movements’ rapt ending is wonderfully captured by the choir and some beautiful soft brass playing.

Perhaps, for sheer strangeness, one of the most imaginative pieces of scoring in this piece occurs in the Hostias where unison trombones swell violently on notes deep in their register whilst a trio of flutes serenely hold a chord above them – it is a unique and disturbing effect, which is quite marvellously realised here by the SWR orchestra.

The following Sanctus is more conventional (how could it not be?) with the one movement that calls for the tenor soloist (sensitively sung by Toby Spence in heady tone). The scoring is comparatively sparse with just strings, a single flute, a three-part female chorus and the soloist all operating high in their respective registers which lends the music a magical ethereal feel, especially when combined with the quite extraordinary chord sequences that Berlioz employs. In the central fugal section, the full chorus is bought into play for the comparatively triumphant Hosanna In Excelsis before the opening music returns. The transition between these very different feelings of music is superbly handled by Norrington who convincingly binds the sections into a cohesive whole. The music ends with a return of Hosanna and in triumphant mood.

The Agnus Dei sums up the piece by borrowing material from the preceding movements. It is Norrington’s great strength that he judged the pacing so well earlier in the performance that all the motifs just slot naturally into place in this movement without him having to disturb the flow in any way. The eerie effects from the Hostias are recalled as is a large chunk of the opening movement. Norrington manages to calm the senses after all that has gone before and the sense of relief as the audience finally pluck up the courage to applaud is palpable.

The recording is as clear as one could wish for and no-one would be ashamed of this as their first effort at a multi-channel (or stereo) recording, or even their 100th! This is a quite magnificent achievement that the engineers from SWR have conjured and a demonstration disc in every way, both for the startling clarity that comes across and the extraordinary dynamic range.

This set should be in every audiophiles home, as well as all fans of Berlioz. What more can I say than “buy it”?!? Give it to all your friends! This must (already) be a strong contender for my disc of the year…

Copyright © 2006 John Broggio and HRAudio.net

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Comments (4)
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Comment by Desertpilot - March 3, 2021 (1 of 4)

At age 70, I am finally retired and devoting a lot more time to music listening. This includes cataloging/tagging all of my music files. Guess what? I own this SACD and never listened to it. I agree with John Broggio. This is wonderful music in multichannel surround. Nice surprise for me to discover music that I already paid for some years ago. Sadly, in a way, I am strictly a consumer. I wish I had the knowledge of HR Audio's reviewers and could discern the differences, good or bad, between this presentation compared to others. I truly appreciate their reviews which steer me towards great music. Lucky for me, my hearing is still pretty good. I'm trying to get as much out of my collection as possible before the inevitable hearing loss. Given that a lot of collectors likely have thousands of discs, I wonder if any of you have lost track of great music. I thought it would be fun to note my experience.

Marcus DiBenedetto
Las Vegas, NV

Comment by Adrian Quanjer - March 4, 2021 (2 of 4)

Don’t worry about “Sadly, in a way, I am strictly a consumer”. Your ears are your best guides. Music is about emotion, whether that be joy, sadness (yes, that one, too) or any other feeling music might invoke in your brains. You are the best one to judge. As for sound, that, too, is something personnel, depending on your equipment and taste. Reviewers often are hair-clovers, nit-pickers, and what have you to discern between this or that. And it is not unusual that they don’t agree with one another.

Writing these lines, I listen to Candida Thomson and Amsterdam Sinfonietta, with Beatrice Rana at the piano, playing Bach. She plays as if it is Chopin. Do I like it? Yes. Is it correct? No. Every purist will agree, I suppose.

There is one thing to keep in mind though. HRAudio reviewers don’t review professionally, sometimes even with a view to selling the discs advertised in the magazine they write for. We review passionately because we are, just like you, music lovers wanting to share personal views. And if we have been able to assist in your buying options, so much the better.

BTW, don’t worry about premature hearing loss. Listening to classical music is the best exercise to keep it as long as possible. Enjoy your retirement!

Comment by Jan Arell - March 5, 2021 (3 of 4)

Desertpilot, I share your enthusiasm for this recording, which nowadays is my prefered one of the Berlioz Requiem. Almost 50 years ago, it was one of the first classical works I bought.

Comment by Desertpilot - March 5, 2021 (4 of 4)

Adrian, thank you so much for your thoughts. I am trying my best to contribute to HR Audio, albeit as a consumer. Based on your comments, I feel better about it and feel I am adding value. By the way, I too love Candida Thompson and Amsterdam Sinfonietta. My current favorite piece is Bottesini: Capriccio di Bravura with Rick Stotijn on Double Bass. Thanks again!

Jan. I appreciate your comment too. I think it is very worthwhile for members to add their thoughts to music featured on HR Audio.

Marcus DiBenedetto
Las Vegas, NV