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Hector BERLIOZ (1803-1869)
Requiem, Op.5 (Grand Messe des Morts) (1837)
Arrigo BOITO (1842-1918)
Prologue to Mefistofele (1868)
Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Te Deum (1894)
John Aler (tenor)
John Cheek (bass)
Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus/Robert Shaw
Rec. Atlanta Symphony Hall, Nov. 10-12, 1984 (Berlioz), April 28-29, 1979 (rest)
TELARC CD 80109 [59’57+65’57]


Berlioz’s Requiem, his great ceremonial to the fallen, is typical of the composer in its quirkiness and originality. It has been seen by many music lovers as a hi-fi spectacular, which is quite unfair, as seven out of the ten movements are relatively serene and introspective. Nevertheless, its large forces do pose a number of problems for the conductor and recording team.

This Atlanta recording was in fact the first to be released on CD, and being from a source such as Telarc, was eagerly waited. Ironically, it was met with a somewhat muted response, mainly because of the recording. It is not ideal, but I found it far more enjoyable than I expected and easily the match of its main rival, Previn and the LPO forces on a budget EMI Double Forte. Shaw’s lack of bombast and showiness may be too restrained for some, and he may well, in the last analysis, be less overtly dramatic (or perhaps theatrical) than Previn. But there is much to admire in Shaw’s sustained beauty of line and tightness of control. This is most evident in the slow sections, where his beautifully balanced choral forces sing with tonal weight and sensitivity. The closing Agnus Dei is a good example of this, where the sound of a very large choir singing with hushed intensity is thrilling. It makes the build-up to the central climax all the more powerful.

In fact, I found the ‘big’ moments to be equally convincing. The famous Tuba mirum, where Berlioz unleashes his four brass bands ‘at the round earth’s imagin’d corners’, is one of music’s most spine-tingling, apocalyptic moments, and Shaw does not disappoint. Yes, he shows control again, but he maintains a strict rhythmic pulse when the awkward triplets start to overlap, thus avoiding the untidiness of some versions, including Previn. Shaw also gives the troubled 9/8 syncopations of the Lacrymosa a stronger, more disturbing emphasis than some, so that his slightly slower pulse pays dividends in finding the expressive counterpoint underneath. The notorious flute and trombone chords of the Hostias work admirably (this is a real test of pitch for the choir), and Shaw’s tenor soloist does all that’s required of him in the Sanctus. It all makes for a very satisfying reading, perhaps too ‘safe’ or cultured for some, but good for repeated listenings, and with a far more disciplined choir than Previn. The sound is a little muddier in some climaxes than the Previn ( and set in a drier acoustic), but the overall balance is better, and it is certainly without the surface hiss of the EMI, which is disturbingly high for a digital recording.

The fillers are also of interest. I greatly enjoyed the Mefistofele Prologue (actually a substantial half-hour chunk) with John Cheek’s strong, characterful bass adding to the pleasure. The Verdi Te Deum is one of the composer’s last and finest utterances, usually heard as one of the so-called Four Last Pieces, but equally effective on its own. Shaw’s performance cannot quite match the electrifying intensity and rock-steady intonation of Gardiner’s Monteverdi Choir version on Philips (a filler to his Verdi Requiem), but Shaw’s is an honest, straightforward account that makes a good bonus to the main fare.

This Telarc re-release could well be of interest to those seeking a mid-price Berlioz Requiem (with more interesting fillers than other versions). There are good notes and full texts that, together with the disciplined performance and wide-ranging sonics, should put it on your short list.

Tony Haywood

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