Few works for massed voices and orchestra are more comprehensively choral than the Requiem of Hector Berlioz. His ‘Great Mass of the Dead’ only admits a solo singer in one of its movements, the ‘Sanctus’, and even that is shared with the choirs. To do this mighty epic justice a company needs to field more than a just charismatic conductor and a virtuosic orchestra; it takes battalions of experienced voices to meet the music’s challenges, for without them the work can plod and drag.
This live recording is a rare misfire both for Chandos and for the normally sure-footed Edward Gardner. The choirs lack fervour and his phrasing is workaday. After the disappointment of an initial hearing it seemed important to check the energy levels against other recent benchmark recordings lest it was case of jaded ears; alas, comparisons with the opening ‘Requiem and Kyrie’ in two monumental versions, those by Sir Colin Davis (LSO Live) and Paul McCreesh (Signum), confirmed the impression that Gardner’s choral forces are not up to the job. Too often they sing the notes with little apparent thought for the message they bear, and Gardner’s decision to adopt a more meditative tone than his predecessors mutes the drama. Hence the major-key outburst of “Luceat” shines with only a low-watt bulb. This is Berlioz infused with Duruflé.
In the ensuing “Quantus tremor est futurus” the prediction of great trembling before God our Judge is diluted by the labours of a lightweight tenor section in just getting its notes out in the right order; likewise “Liber scriptus” is rendered pallid because the essential power of muscular male voices is missing... So it continues throughout the ‘Dies irae’ sequence, the "Rex tremendae", "Quaerens me" and "Lacrymosa" fail, each in turn, to communicate the work’s orotund conviction or in any way stir the spirit.
It’s telling that the recording’s first successful movement is the ‘Offertoire’ (Offertorium), which Berlioz sets as a meditative prayer or offering. The choirs sing the text on just A and B flat in a quasi-plainchant over a churning orchestration that’s both busy and colourful, then soar to Heaven at the words “Libera eas” (Set them free). It is fabulously effective and finds the best in everyone.
The tenor’s timbre in the ‘Sanctus’ is at one with the mellow mood of the choral picture. Bror Magnus Tødenes has a charming instrument but he does not sound comfortable with the tessitura and he projects little understanding of what he is singing. Comparisons with Barry Banks for Davis and Robert Murray on McCreesh’s magnificent version do the young Norwegian no favours.
Happily, the orchestral and brass-choir playing is as polished as one has come to expect from this musically exciting corner of Scandinavia. In a recording captured live the players respond to the interpretation with rapt commitment and technical aplomb, and if the musical excitement is dialled down they are only heeding their master’s choice.
Would Berlioz, a musical showman who composed in Technicolor, have appreciated the conductor’s preference for contemplative devotion? I don’t believe so, because once you remove the drama from this score there’s not much left. Nevertheless, if you empathise with Gardner’s approach you may find more to move you in this release than I. The booklet includes texts and translations.