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Hector BERLIOZ (1803-1869)
Requiem (Grande Messe des morts), Op. 5
Nicolai Gedda (tenor)
Chor des Norddeutsches Rundfunks; Kölner Rundfunkchor
Kölner Rundfunk-Sinfonie-Orchester/Dimitri Mitropoulos
rec. 26 August 1956, Saal 1, Funkhaus, Cologne ADD
ICA CLASSICS ICAC5075 [82:22]

Experience Classicsonline



 
Perhaps more than anything else, Dimitri Mitropoulos excelled in large-scale works in which he had to direct substantial forces. The Berlioz Grande Messe des morts certainly falls into that category. In the booklet note Donald Rosenberg cites the forces required as a reason why orchestras rarely programme the work. He might well have added that Berlioz makes huge demands on the singers, especially the tenors; that probably makes people think long and hard before putting on a performance, especially as a big chorus is required to match the size of the orchestra, though the full band is sparingly used.
 
This performance, which I presume was a live account, though there are no audience noises, was one of two that Mitropoulos gave in the space of a few days of each other during his 1956 summer visit to Europe. The other was given at the Salzburg Festival just a few days earlier, on 15 August 1956, a performance that Mitropoulos dedicated to the memory of Wilhelm Furtwängler. By happy chance that performance was also preserved and it’s been available for some time on Orfeo (C 457 971 B). In Salzburg Mitropoulos had at his disposal the Chorus of the Vienna State Opera and the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra; his tenor soloist was Leopold Simoneau.
 
The start of the Cologne performance is a bit inauspicious. The first chorus entries, especially those of the sopranos and, to a lesser extent, the tenors, sound a bit strained. Also, one is conscious of a studio acoustic. By contrast the Salzburg performance, which was given in the Felsenreitschule, benefits from a more spacious acoustic, which better serves this work. The sound of the Cologne choirs takes a bit of getting used to; their singing is a bit vibrato-heavy for my taste and, to be honest, the sopranos often sound somewhat on the matronly side during the performance. The Vienna choir isn’t ideal either, though I think it has an edge over the Cologne singers. In truth, the choral singing in both performances, though never less than adequate - and often a good deal more than that - shows how much standards of choral singing have risen in the last fifty years.
 
Having said that our first encounter with the combined Cologne choirs isn’t ideal I must encourage you to persevere because the performance soon settles and the singers make a pretty good job of Berlioz’s demanding writing. They offer committed singing in the Rex tremendae, for instance. In the Quaerens me some of the phrasing is just a little mannered, I feel, though that’s down to the conductor. They cope very well with the Lacrymosa and in this movement it’s right to give a special accolade to the tenors who don’t quail in the face of the demanding tessitura at Judicandus, homo reus and then voice the Pie Jesu sweetly. Despite a few instances of understandable strain I think the choir gives a good account of itself during what is a long, taxing sing - unlike, say, in the Verdi Requiem there are no movements in which they can rest while the soloists take centre-stage.
 
In fact there’s only one movement that involves a soloist, namely the Sanctus. Here he is Nicolai Gedda. I don’t think he’s done any favours by the recorded balance, which places him in a very ‘present’ way. However, I’m not sure I agree with his approach to the solo. The notes describe it as a “full-throated, heroic account” but is that what’s wanted here? I think not. Gedda’s sound is beautiful but there’s far too much of it. Switch to Simoneau on the Salzburg recording and you’re in a different world. True, Simoneau is more distantly balanced - which is as it should be - but he’s much more subtle with the music. His singing is softer, lighter than that of his Swedish rival; he floats the line, no matter how high it goes, and, for my money, that’s absolutely correct and much to be preferred to Gedda’s forthright operatic way with the solo.
 
Mitropoulos is in total command of the score. There are one or two aspects with which I’m not quite comfortable. For example, the Hostias is a bit robust - on both recordings. Here, the quieter, more prayerful approach of Sir Colin Davis is much more satisfying - and in keeping with Berlioz’s wishes. However, such moments of doubt are rare and most of the time Mitropoulos is wholly convincing. The big moments come over very well. The Tuba mirum - which, unlike on most recordings, is not separately tracked (it starts at track 2, 4:56) - is very powerful and the Cologne brass bands stay together, which isn’t easy to do; their Vienna colleagues don’t quite manage it. In the Lacrymosa Berlioz’s musical juggernaut rolls along implacably. However, Mitropoulos also impresses in the quieter moments, of which there are many in this score. He handles the Offertorium, a favourite movement of mine, very well, helped by some very good playing from the Cologne orchestra. The Agnus Dei, when Berlioz brings the work full circle, also comes of very well. In summary, this recording confirms what anyone who has heard the Salzburg performance will know; Mitropoulos has the measure of this vast score and is able to convey its gaunt majesty, its beauty and its grandeur. I made a passing reference to the orchestra just then and should expand on that by saying that their playing throughout the performance is very good.
 
If you already have the Orfeo recording there is little need to duplicate since the shape of the performances is pretty similar and the Salzburg reading has the better soloist. However, if you haven’t yet heard Dimitri Mitropoulos’ very considerable interpretation of this great work then this Cologne performance is well worth acquiring. As is the usual, regrettable practice of this label, there’s a complete absence of texts. I imagine it was a challenge to squeeze this performance onto one disc. Perhaps that’s the reason why gaps between movements are extremely short - three seconds between the end of the Lacrymosa and the start of the Offertorium, for example. You may wish to use the pause button on your CD player at times.
 
John Quinn 

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