Archive for October 2010

Berlioz — Grande Messe des Morts

October 11, 2010

Berlioz Grande Messe des Morts, Barbican Hall, Saturday 9 October 2010;  Crouch End Festival Chorus conducted by David Temple 

I played the Grande Messe des Morts with Cambridge University Music Society (in Ely Cathedral, circa 1970), so have always loved this amazing work (and the 3rd bassoon part is engraved on my brain forever).  And Diana is a Berlioz scholar (PhD) and member of the Berlioz Society, so how could we miss it.

 Conductor David Temple — despite his alarming resemblance to Alan Titchmarsh — did a great job.  He didn’t really conduct anyone except the choir, but the performance held together and the effect was overwhelming.  The Crouch End Festival Chorus delivered brilliantly — intonation, attack, energy, keeping pitch, dynamic contrasts, getting the words across, even synchronised sits and stands — all absolutely fine.  (Special bravas to the two lady tenors…)  The orchestra was the London Orchestra da Camera, which was a bit of a mystery — supposedly ‘ the country’s most talented freelance professional musicians’, but apart from the leader, John Bradbury (very fine), I didn’t recognize any of the names or faces.  They played really well — sonorous and in tune — though they could have done with more cellos and basses (6 and 4 not enough for this piece) and occasionally felt as if they could have done with more rehearsal too.  But they gave a magnificent performance.

 Tenor Robert Murray (a former Jette Parker Young Artist at the Royal Opera House) was, well, quite divine in the Sanctus, his voice floating effortlessly over the assembled company (from his position behind the orchestra but in front of the choir — a good solution).

 Slightly taken aback by the dress code — gents of the orchestra in full white tie and tails, ladies in workaday all-black (mostly trousers), choir all in black.  Conductor in a black bin liner worn outside his trousers* (an unflattering fashion also affected by Tony Pappano at the ROH).

 And I haven’t even begun to enumerate all the things that are so extraordinary about the piece.  It has been described as ‘really an opera’, like the Verdi Requiem – but it’s also an experimental laboratory of orchestration (chords on three flutes accompanied by trombone pedal notes?  Two cors anglais?  Six pairs of timpani?  Not to mention those four brass bands up in the balcony — I defy anyone to hear it live and not have shivers up your spine, if not a lump in your throat and tears in your eyes.  What an extraordinary composer.)  Well, just get hold of the Colin Davis recording and hear for yourself!

 (Once upon a time I was involved in a TV recording of the Berlioz Requiem with Leonard Bernstein at Les Invalides in Paris (Napoleon’s resting place), the venue for which the work was composed.  Just thought I’d drop that in.  Now THAT was absolutely amazing.)

 Many thanks to the Berlioz Society for our excellently placed seats.  Would be interesting to hear from anyone else who was there?  Didn’t spot many familiar faces among the (not full) audience.

 If your own orchestra or choir ever gets an invitation to perform this piece, don’t hesitate!  As I recall from a hundred years ago, it’s great fun to play as well as to listen to.  And Berlioz writes for four bassoons, so he has got to be a good thing.

* For elucidation:  David Temple actually wore an open-necked black shirt outside his trousers.  Tony Pappano sports an oversize collarless black shirt for which my boss coined the pejorative (but graphic) description ‘black bin liner’.  Comfortable, perhaps — but a disconcerting sight at recent concert performances of Les pecheurs de perles when the entire ROH chorus as well as the orchestra and soloists were in full evening dress.