sun 21/07/2024

Grande Messe des Morts, BBCSO, Roth, RAH | reviews, news & interviews

Grande Messe des Morts, BBCSO, Roth, RAH

Grande Messe des Morts, BBCSO, Roth, RAH

A very French Requiem for Remembrance Day

Four brass bands, ten timpanists and a tenor in an organ loft: the BBCSO at full strength for Berlioz© all photos Chris Christodoulou/BBC

Lest we forget. On Flanders’ Fields. For the Fallen. No one does stiff-upper-lip, buttoned-up remembrance quite like the English. Since its composition only a little over half a century ago, the War Requiem has become our national anthem for the departed.

When Britten’s hastily greasepainted collage of Wilfrid Owen and the best bits of Mozart and Verdi (not to mention Berlioz) is retired every so often, something more muted is generally preferred for chilly November evenings: Fauré, or at a stretch Duruflé, Requiems as sympathetic to sing as they are to listen to, with melodies as sweet as a sugar-coated pacifier, long enough to have a little cry to, discreetly brief in the coverage of hellfire and damnation.

No less immediately French in sound and impact, the Grande Messe des Morts strikes a quite different key signature. Ever more an embittered atheist, Berlioz was not in the business of consolation. First performed at a military funeral in the vast acoustic of Les Invalides, his Requiem embodies the French Republic at prayer. 

The BBC Symphony Orchestra has a Berlioz tradition of its own stretching back to the 1960s and the stewardship of Sir Colin Davis, but they can rarely have played French music this way, except under Marc Minkowski. As he did for L'enfance du Christ three years ago, François-Xavier Roth turned them into a period band without making a Norringtonian song and dance about it. The string bass sound was planed smooth and warm as a communion rail. Violins found a plangent yet sweet register that suited Berlioz to perfection. Pure tone throughout the orchestra brought detail, bright and shining, from what is often a set of sonic monoliths irregularly separated by subterranean rumbling.

Toby Spence and the BBCSO in Berlioz's Requiem

Still more striking and revelatory was the choral work. Rex tremendae was thrillingly hurled out by the BBC Symphony Chorus, Crouch End Festival Chorus and London Philharmonic Choir, banked either side of the unused organ. Meticulously enunciated French Latin closed up the vowels of key words such as "futurus", blending them pungently with a wind band which seemed to include every bassoonist in London. The effect was continually fresh and enlightening, opening our ears on to the music Berlioz would have had in mind when writing the Requiem in 1836-7, not only his near contemporaries such as Gluck and Le Sueur but Baroque masters of ceremony such as Rameau and Delalande. The thunderous Dies Irae was like a Charpentier psalm setting inflated to Babylonian proportions, sung as if by the population of a city under siege.

Roth never allowed the size or acoustic of the Royal Albert Hall to dictate terms to him. His theatrically astute pacing carried energy through to the Requiem’s weaker second half and brought a welcome clarity of structure to its ritualistic alternation of bold but undeveloped material. The Offertory could be heard as a long echo of fragmented ideas in the wake of the Lacrymosa’s infernal canons. Roth's ear for modernist sonority made unsettling sense of the Hostias, in which a male chorus of supplicants was framed by an instrumental scaffold of flutes and trombones as hollow and desolate as a bombed-out cathedral.

The tenor solo of the Sanctus was radiantly sustained by Toby Spence (pictured above), if not without obvious effort, and accompanied by a flute solo of unearthly purity from Michael Cox. With his unfussy authority, Roth held the silence which fills the void after the Agnus dei’s final drum-taps: a welcome gesture of sobriety at the end of a concert and a day to remember.  



Interesting to see the piece described as "what is often a set of sonic monoliths irregularly separated by subterranean rumbling". The joint choir rehearsals for Sunday's concert were held at Queen Mary University of London in the East End, where the strains of Berlioz were frequently punctuated by the actual (and often well-timed) irregular subterranean rumble of the Central Line passing by. Maestro Roth was delighted.

Thanks for your reply. I also see from Twitter how precise he was with pronunciation requirements. They certainly paid off! Peter

Wish I'd been there. I walked into York Minster one afternoon around 1970 and Dorati was rehearsing the Requiem - with the LSO(?) and massed Yorkshire choirs and four brass bands in four corners - stayed and wept.

Thanks, Roger. I do recommend tuning in. Peter

I was there that day in the choir, aged 21. I am now 72 and have never forgotten it. I still feel the tears choking me, the sublime music and the lights shining through the minster windows. A huge highlight of my life.

Thank you for that memory, Mr. Jones. Especially poignant in the light of last night's fire. And of course York Minster had something similar to deal with, though not on as vast a scale if memory serves.

The first paragraph of this review leaves a nasty taste in the mouth and is positively insulting to millions about the way they mourn their war dead. It sounds as though the writer is very bitter that Britten's War Requiem is the success it is. I've never understand how some people, particularly professionals, in order to bang the drum for their favourites can only do it by denigrating someone else's. Thankfully I'm able to appreciate both Britten and Berlioz whose Requiem's have nothing in common save latin text and whose objectives are simply different.

Dear Waldteufel

Thanks for reading and responding. I've re-read my first paragraph and can't see where I'm insulting anyone. I'd say the Requiems of Britten and Berlioz do have a lot in common, in origin, material and reception. Reservations have been widely expressed about the War Requiem ever since its premiere, which as you say should not, and does not, prevent very many listeners from being deeply moved by it. Thanks, Peter

Those reservations are merely blind spots. What was good enough for Shostakovich - who declared War Requiem one of the two greatest scores of the 20th century along with Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde - is good enough for me. Mind you, I was a bit sniffy about it once.

"Reservations" can be much more than "merely blind spots". I've sung the War Requiem lots of times (I'm in the LPC who were singing this time) and the more I hear it the more my admiration grows for the composer's skill. But I remain worried about an occasional sense of being manipulated emotionally, and there seems to be a view that because the piece is so much in tune with modern liberal sensibilities it is not the done thing to criticise it. (WIlfred Owen's "futility" is only one of a very wide range of different voices of First World War poets.) I wouldn't go as far as Mr Quantrell but I have reservations that do not go away, especially (but not only) about the Sanctus which is in my view just an "idea" and not a very good one.

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