Berlioz: Grande Messe des Morts

Colin Davis / Barry Banks / London Philharmonic Choir / London Symphony Chorus / London Symphony Orchestra

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Berlioz: Grande Messe des Morts Review

by James Manheim

Colin Davis has always been among the more restrained and balanced of British conductors, even in High Romantic repertory, and perhaps even more so at the age of 85, when this live recording was made. If you favor the over-the-top kind of Berlioz reading, this live recording of the Requiem, made at London's St. Paul's Cathedral in 2012, may not fully do the job for you. Yet even those temperamentally not in Davis' corner should check this out, for among live recordings, and really among all the recordings of the Berlioz Requiem, comes unusually close to doing justice to the composer's spatial conception of the work. The work was written for the massive, squarish church of St. Louis des Invalides in Paris, and it features, at its ear-splitting climaxes, different groups of musicians scattered around the space and operating separately. Not only Davis but the London Symphony's engineers deserve praise for the results achieved on this release by the orchestra's own LSO Live label, for the Berlioz Requiem live, in a church, must be the black belt of sound engineering. Sample the passage beginning "Tuba mirum spargens sonum" (The trumpet spreading its sounds) in the Dies irae, track 2, for an indication of Davis' accomplishment here; this passage, where performers and engineers usually are content just to knock you down with sound, becomes a continuously exploding peroration from the four separate brass choirs involved. If there's a complaint here, it's that in some of the passages where Berlioz pushes them into their upper registers, the singers of the London Philharmonic Choir are less than silken, but the orchestra itself doesn't miss a beat. A major Berlioz Requiem, and a fine piece of work from the end of a remarkable symphonic career.

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