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SACD Review

Hector Berlioz

Requiem, Op. 5

Leopold Simoneau, tenor
New England Conservatory Chorus
Boston Symphony Orchestra/Charles Munch
RCA 82876-66373-2 2 Hybrid Multichannel SACDs 83:37
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Summary for the Busy Executive: Wild man.

Berlioz's Requiem has little to do with personal grief or with liturgical salvation, for that matter. He conceived it as part of the celebrations in 1837 of those who died in France's revolution of 1830. The music was one more impressive element, like the rows of uniformed cavalry, clergy, brass, and banners – the soundtrack, if you like, of spectacle. Thus, it makes little sense to judge the work by the same principles as you might the Fauré or the Howells Requiem. Berlioz did not write the work to console, but to wow.

A hundred and seventy years later, it still does. As with most Berlioz, the astonishing stands side-by-side with the klunky. I always put this down to the fact that the only instruments Berlioz played even moderately well were the flute and the guitar. As a result, he had no pianist "muscle-memory" or even compositional habits gleaned from studying scores as a performer to lead him into a rut, not that this is necessarily desirable. After all, the rut is well-worn for good reasons, as well as bad. Berlioz did study, with Le Sueur and Gossec among others, but his music nevertheless seems to come across as "unschooled." I've always wondered how well he did in counterpoint classes, and in his writings he heaped scorn on school fugues. His own fugues, for example (the Requiem "Hosanna" in particular), sound both stiffly four-square and like nobody else's.

Then there's the orchestration, which, of course everybody notices. Vaughan Williams once remarked, that try as he might, he could never duplicate the wonderful high-string effects in Wagner. "Then I realized, Wagner had thought of the music first." Berlioz is often that way as well. The orchestration isn't something laid on, but an integral part of the musical conception. At times, however, I suspect Berlioz of thinking of an instrumental combination first, and then writing music for it, as in the moment for four brass choirs in the "Tuba mirum" section. Sure, it's a Grand Conception and obviously arises from the text itself, but the music per se is nothing much. It seems a waste of brass. On the other hand, it does belong firmly to the tradition of French military-ceremonial, open-air music of which Gossec was so much a part. It is probably, nevertheless, the only spot in the entire Requiem which speaks so clearly of its time and place and which has so completely dated. Still, the norm of the Requiem would do today's avant-garde composer proud. Its strangeness still shocks us.

The work moves mainly through the juxtaposition of extreme contrasts. Beethoven's Missa Solemnis does as well, but while the Missa shows the composer's scholarly awareness of just about every major mass setting produced in his lifetime, the Requiem owes little or nothing to anybody else. Berlioz's conception of each major section remains strikingly unique. "Requiem aeternam" consists largely of unaccompanied wind solos and choral unisons. The "Dies irae," with a main theme as powerful as the traditional chant itself, takes this kind of texture to Tourette-like bursts of color from the orchestra, like a Whistler nocturne or a Turner fire-painting. Even parts of the chorus do the same kind of thing against other voices. With the "Quid sum miser," we return to the single, penitent voice, followed by the roar of the "Rex tremendae." For me, the single most beautiful movement, the six-part "Quaerens me," comes closest to consolation and perhaps a personal prayer from the composer himself, as opposed to the grand guignol of Berlioz's apocalypse. The wildest movement of all, of course, follows this: the "Lacrymosa," with brutal off-beat blows from the orchestra and howls from the choir, interrupted by a middle section with the sweetness of Italian ice.

Schumann called its successor, the "Offertorium," his favorite movement of the work. To stripped-down, near-Minimalist music, the choir on a line of rising and falling semitones basically whines and sobs its way through the text. The choral "melody" doesn't change, except at the very end, and one has to admire the compositional stones it took for Berlioz to insist on it for so long. Anyhow, I understand Schumann's admiration. At first, you might become a bit uneasy at hearing this little strain over and over again for so long a span. But then it somehow gets inside you and exercises a strange compulsion. After this, the quasi-chorale ending may come as a bit of a shock, like a church "amen" after a Devo tune.

The "Sanctus," with a Marching-to-Pretoria Hosanna fugue, paints an almost Oriental heaven, as if the heavenly host brushed the discreet antique cymbal here and there. Berlioz's heaven is curiously static and curiously radiant. Somehow, he gets sound to shine and glow.

But the Requiem doesn't consist solely of isolated movements. The composer forges links from one movement to the next. For example, the "Hostias" shows up in part in the concluding "Agnus Dei," as does the opening "Requiem aeternam."

All in all, the Requiem may not be the most profound setting of the text, but it is extraordinarily interesting and certainly true to the composer himself. You find yourself remembering the smallest details in a massive work and becoming astonished all over again.

For a piece so grand and expensive to put on, Berlioz's Requiem has received quite a few recordings. I haven't heard anywhere near all of them. It seems to me, however, that ideally one gets an exciting reading in great sound. The Levine recording is, predictably, nothing much, nor is the Inbal. Shaw, in contradiction to his magnificent live readings, manages to make his Telarc Requiem dull. Mitropoulos takes no prisoners, but it's a mono recording. For me, this RCA Munch is the benchmark. Munch also recorded the work for DG, but that reading is slightly tamer. For RCA, Munch's on fire. You might also consider Colin Davis on Philips. I don't really agree with Davis's view of Berlioz. He sees him as far more classical than I do, as if the composer were the Ingres of music rather than the Géricault. Still, he gets great playing from the LSO, and he has, I suppose, a valid point. For me, it's all a bit too languid. I'm shallow and perfectly willing, even eager, for Berlioz to overwhelm me. Nevertheless, I find myself, every once in a while with Davis just to, as it were, clean my palate. Then it's back to Munch for a few more years. If you must have only one Berlioz Requiem, then the RCA Munch is the one to get.

Copyright © 2008, Steve Schwartz