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Hector BERLIOZ (1803-1869)
Grande Messe des Morts, Op. 5 (1837, rev. 1852 & 1867) [75:33]
La Mort d’Orphée (1827) [12:55]
Kenneth Tarver (tenor)
Seattle Symphony Chorale, Seattle Pro Musica
Seattle Symphony/Ludovic Morlot
rec. live, 9 & 11 November 2017, S. Mark Taper Foundation Auditorium, Benaroya Hall, Seattle, Washington
Reviewed as a 24/96 download from Presto
Pdf booklet does not contain sung texts

New recordings of the Berlioz Requiem are rare, so I was pleasantly surprised to see two new ones appear in quick succession. Alas, the first, with Edward Gardner and the Bergen Phil, was a major disappointment (Chandos). In particular, that performance lacks scale or a sense of occasion; after all, this isn’t just a ceremonial piece, it’s a French ceremonial piece, which demands to be played and sung for all it’s worth. And that’s precisely how the late, great Sir Colin Davis does it in his classic 1969 recording for Philips, reissued on SACD by Pentatone.

The second new Requiem is this one, from Ludovic Morlot and the Seattle Symphony. I’ve reviewed a number of their albums over the years, and was much taken with the strength and consistency of their Charles Ives series. Others, their Stravinsky ballets, for example, are more variable. However, the firmly projected Kyrie in their Grande Messe des Morts is certainly encouraging. Morlot has never been one to dawdle – he shaves five minutes off Gardner’s performance and a staggering sixteen from Davis’s – so his music-making can seem brusque, even ‘clipped’, at times.

Nevertheless, the Seattle choirs have more body and character than Gardner’s Norwegian ones, and his recording – although quite dry – is more immediate and involving. That’s especially true of Morlot’s Tuba mirum, which has real impact and evokes Boschian images of terror and torment. In that sense, he’s far closer to Davis than he is to the underwhelming Gardner. What’s missing in both, though, is an airy cathedral acoustic, which, coupled with long, seamless orchestral and vocal lines, makes Davis’s recording live and breathe in a most remarkable way.

Unlike Gardner, Morlot has energy and rhythmic verve when required – in the Lacrymosa, for instance – but he doesn’t have the time or the inclination to examine the surprising nuances and subtleties embedded in this monumental score. That said, he does bring out its antiphonal elements, which Gardner fails to do. As for Morlot’s tenor, Kenneth Tarver, he’s much too close, and that magnifies his difficulties with Berlioz’s soaring lines. (At least he’s audible; Gardner’s soloist appears to be singing from the car park.)

Otherwise, these Seattle forces play and sing well. They also rise to the Requiem’s great peaks with commendable passion. What a pity that Morlot is in such a hurry, so these pivotal moments – which Davis savours to the full – pass all too quickly. Then again, neither he nor Gardner has Davis’s instinctive appreciation of the work’s magisterial dimensions, its long spans and fine details, so their readings feel somewhat generalised, even cursory, at times. At least Morlot gives those final ‘Amens’ a sense of summation and serenity; alas, they pass for little under Gardner. Davis eclipses them both at this point, his choirs matchless in their quiet and simple radiance.

The coupling is Berlioz’s second Prix de Rome submission, the cantata La Mort d’Orphée. It gets an urgent, rather unsubtle outing here; Tarver’s ringing yet relentless delivery doesn’t help. One only need turn to Jean-Claude Casadesus, with the Orchestre National de Lille and a Calais choir, to hear how the piece should go (Naxos). Also, his tenor, Daniel Galvez Vallejo, is far more expressive – and idiomatic – than Morlot’s. In short, the latter’s performance, which short-changes Berlioz at every turn, sounds too much like a run-through.

Morlot’s Requiem is probably preferable to Gardner’s, but that’s not saying much. Classic Davis is still out in front, with his Dresden memorial concert, from 1994, close behind (Profil). However, I wasn’t persuaded by his 2012 remake, which John Quinn liked more than I did (LSO Live). Paul McCreesh’s Wroclaw recording, made in 2010, is worth hearing, though (Signum). Incidentally, this Seattle album plays for more than 88 minutes, which is pretty impressive for a single CD. That may explain why there’s barely a pause between the two works, although I can’t see why that applies to the download as well. All applause has been edited out.

Intermittently exciting performances that fall far short of the best; good rather than exceptional sound.

Dan Morgan

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