in: Reviews

July 11, 2011

Haunting Ambiguity of Berlioz’s Requiem

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It is a constant source of amazement that the Grand Messe des Morts, or Requiem, by Hector Berlioz, an extraordinarily forward-looking work at its Paris premiere in 1837, is its composer’s Opus #5. That such an astonishing piece would be any composer’s fifth completed composition is a remarkable achievement, even for Berlioz, who would go on to amaze and astonish his listeners for all of his subsequent career, and even to today.

This is a requiem unlike any other before or since, and its far-ranging influence can be seen and felt in other composers’ requiems, most obviously Verdi’s Manzoni… and Benjamin Britten’s War….

Of all the requiems, the Berlioz remains for me the most questioning, the most doubting, the most overtly fearful of death. The strange chordal resolutions throughout, the halting choral language of the opening pages, the far-spaced flute/low trombone moments heard later in the work, the quiet sets of tympani drumming their unsettling tattoos at the very end, the brasses’ pitched battle of half-step pitches with the unwilling-to-move chorus and orchestra near the end of the Lachrymosa – all these things lend this work a haunting and haunted sense of ambiguity. ‘Will there actually be a positive response to the plea “Dona nobis pacem”?’ is the mood created at the end. And, of course, the positively apocalyptic Tuba Mirum never fails to conjure terrifying Hieronymus Boschian images of the Last Judgement.

The “overwhelmingness” of Berlioz’s setting is often mentioned as its most “memorable” feature, and there is much in this music that can overwhelm. For me, however, though I’m thrilled by the sheer mass and weight of the assembled brass and percussion, it’s the softer music that holds more fascination and admiration these days. Perhaps it is this that made Charles Dutoit’s performance with the Boston Symphony Orchestra at Tanglewood this past Saturday, July 9, so unusually special. Oh, the four brass ensembles were there, of course, but they played in excellent sync with one another with an uncommonly rich and mellow timbre. Even the six sets of tympani were played in a more circumspect fashion than is usual in this work. What impressed the most in this open-air concert was the remarkable integration Dutoit brought to this music’s many disparate movements, his ideal pacing and tempi, his elegant phrasing, his attention to balance and nuance. He was clearly aiming less for splash and flash, seeking much more the lyric, of which there is a great deal more in this work than one might always think. Far in memory remained the more blazingly extrovert (and LOUD!) performances of Munch and Ozawa in this venue, though no less valid, to be sure.

As this was opening week at Tanglewood, one should probably forgive the many less-than-perfect things that were heard: several surprising false entrances from within the orchestra, an errant though thankfully soft cymbal stroke, individual voices unblended and non-agreed-upon phrase endings in the otherwise attentive Tanglewood Festival Chorus, and a tenor soloist of a lovely voice, yet whose timbre and temperament seemed less than ideal for this composition. For a Boston Symphony Orchestra concert, this list is too long. One might worry that a bit of discipline might be lacking now that that this wonderful ensemble is without a visible music director.

Yet there was much to admire. John Oliver’s TFC sang with nobility and beauty, up to the immense challenges presented by this sprawling music, the bass and alto sections particularly uniform in their sonorities. Principal English Horn Robert Sheena’s use of a particular reed or instrument tellingly colored his solo in the Quid sum miser with a very appropriate plaintiveness. Tuba artist Mike Roylance’s velvet underpinning of the sinuous melodic line in the Offertorium was a wonderment to hear, so subtle, shaped, and blended. The horns summoned up a nice, nazzy tone for their muted enharmonic interruptions at “mors stupebit” in the Tuba Mirum. The resoundingly deep bass drum strokes mid-way through the Lacrymosa were perfectly essayed – a small detail, but so important. I was intrigued that Dutoit, unlike other conductors I’ve heard, ended this most remarkable movement with a very rapid diminuendo and hardly any fermata. Shaw, Ozawa, and Munch all linger there for a while. Finally, is there any string section, anywhere, that can play the aforementioned Offertorium unison melodic lines so beautifully and so soulfully as the BSO? One senses that these wonderful players have this music deeply in their blood.

I was told after the concert that Maestro Dutoit accomplished this very moving reading of the Berlioz while quite ill and running a temperature of 102°. One surely would not have known this in the hall from his vigorous and musical leading of this challenging masterwork. Bully for him for his “show must go on” attitude, and much gratitude is extended to the BSO and TFC for going his way so willingly. For all its little flaws of execution, this Berlioz Requiem from the Tanglewood Shed will be one to remember.

John W. Ehrlich is music director of Spectrum Singers, which he founded 31 years ago. He has been a singer and conductor in the Boston area for more than 30 years.

3 Comments

  1. Berlioz’s “Requiem” was composed well after Beethoven’s death. I suspect that if any prior piece provided Beethoven with “inspiration” for the tympani passages in his “Missa Solemnis”, it would have been Haydn’s “Missa in Tempore Bello”. I wouldn’t be surprised if the descending fifths in D-minor that open Beethove’s Ninth Symphony drew their inspiration from Haydn’s “Quinten” or “Fifths” String Quartet also in the same key!

    Comment by Laurence Glavin — July 12, 2011 at 4:49 pm

  2. Mr. Glavin is absolutely correct, and I apologize for this glaring error. Not sure how it happened, but never again, I promise!

    JWE

    Comment by John W. Ehrlich — July 12, 2011 at 6:06 pm

  3. When I first heard the Berlioz Requiem, my impression was that it was a Concerto For Composer. It’s as if Berlioz set up a series of impossible challenges for himself: write a movement that sounds like it’s constantly changing even though the phrase sung by the chorus never changes; write almost inaudibly-soft music using the loudest instruments; end with a sublime cadence followed by five more, all different, each more sublime than the previous.

    When I saw the score I was even more impressed but I wondered about the things I saw that I had never heard. For instance, at one point four bassoons play tight four-note chords. I can’t tell you what that sounds like because I’ve never seen more than two bassoons play it.

    I’m sorry I missed this performance.

    Comment by Mark Lutton — July 12, 2011 at 11:09 pm

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