Bold, brash and often bonkers, one would expect no less from maverick French composer Hector Berlioz but his Requiem Mass or as it is more aptly named, his Grande Messe des Morts, certainly provides ample opportunity to examine the weird and wonderful sound world which makes each of his works distinctive and unique.
Requiring a large orchestra, three separate groups of brass players and no fewer than four timpanists, a tenor soloist and large choral forces, it comes as no surprise that performances of this mighty work are rare, so it was ambitious of the Philharmonia Orchestra to open its 2014-15 season with such a colossal undertaking.
Much of it was mightily impressive, but with a work that lends itself best to the vast expanses of a cathedral, or even the Royal Albert Hall, one couldn’t help but feel that the confines of the Royal Festival Hall and its tricky acoustic failed to let the music soar. Having the extra brass positioned in front of the organ console, to either side of the Choir and in the Royal Box, certainly got the pulses racing in the ‘Tuba Mirum’ and there can be no denying that combined with the thrilling Bristol Choral Society, Gloucester Choral Society and Philharmonia Voices, this was viscerally exciting stuff, but it left one feeling battered round the temples rather than spiritually edified.
This was due more to the venue than Esa-Pekka Salonen’s taut and well disciplined reading. From the opening string phrases, which were never allowed to linger, it became clear early on that this wasn’t going to be one of those interpretations that were going wallow in overblown sentimentality. Swift, but never perfunctory, Salonen had Berlioz’ vision of life, damnation and the ‘afterlife’ well within his grasp and drew magnificent playing from all sections of the orchestra.
The three choirs, under the expert tutelage of Adrian Partington, blended mellifluously and as said earlier were not only thrilling at full pelt, but when slimmed down to a mere handful of singers in the ‘Quaerens me’, produced a hauntingly ethereal sound.
French tenor Sebastian Droy introduced a ‘Sanctus’ of uncommon strength and ardour, the fast vibrato in his voice used to telling effect. Berlioz’ tricky vocal line, with several flights into the stratosphere, didn’t faze him in the slightest.
There was a sense of spiritual reconciliation in the final ‘Agnus Dei’, drawing this inspired performance to its hushed close. One couldn’t help but marvel at the originality of Berlioz’ epic work, the originality of the scoring, and the sheer audaciousness of it all. In Salonen’s hands it was crafted anew, and was a memorable and rousing start to the orchestra’s new season.
Further details of Royal Festival Hall concerts can be found at southbankcentre.co.uk.