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Hector BERLIOZ (1803-1869)
Grande Messe des Morts, Op. 5 (1837, rev. 1852 & 1867)
Bror Magnus Tødenes (tenor)
Choir of Collegium Musicum; Edvard Grieg Kor; Bergen Philharmonic Choir
Eikanger-Bjørsvik Musikklag; Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra/Edward Gardner
rec. live, 21-24 May 2018, as part of the Bergen International Festival
Reviewed as a 24/96 Studio download from
Pdf booklet includes sung texts

The highlight of Edward Gardner’s tenure with the Bergen Philharmonic – he’s been their principal conductor since 2015 – is a vividly dramatic recording of Janáček’s Glagolitic Mass. That set up high expectations for his take on another choral masterpiece, Schoenberg’s Gurre-Lieder, which, alas, weren’t met. Now he’s got to Berlioz’s truly grand Op. 5, a work I’ve known and admired for forty years. My introduction to the Requiem was the Louis Frémaux set with the CBSO, now part of a 12-CD box from Warner. I’ve owned many versions since, but for me the late, great Sir Colin Davis’s 1969 recording for Philips – reissued on SACD by Pentatone – has never been surpassed. Even his Dresden memorial concert from 1994 (Profil), and his 2012 account for LSO Live, don’t really challenge that old classic, although, as you’ll see from the link above, John Quinn thought very highly of the London remake.

Having nailed my colours to the mast, it’s clear Gardner’s performance will have to be very special indeed if it’s to supplant my hardy favourite. First impressions aren’t good, the soft-grained, seemingly underpowered Kyrie lacking any sense of devotion or impending drama. As for the less-than-immediate sound – perhaps compromised by the constraints of a live performance – it ensures the apocalyptic noise of the Tuba mirum just doesn’t move and shake as it should. Not only do Davis’s orchestra, augmented brass and the LSO and Wandsworth choirs all respond with a fervour and focus that surely emanates from the podium, they’re also ideally spread across a broad and spacious soundstage. A reminder, if it were needed, that the Philips set, nearly fifty years old, is as much a technical marvel as it is a musical milestone.

The hushed playing and singing in Gardner’s Quid sum miser is more appealing, yet even here I yearned for the luminous, long-breathed phrases that Davis made his own. And if you’re expecting a blaze of sound in Rex tremendae, you’ll be sorely disappointed. No sign, either, of the intuitive tempi and felicitous rhythms, especially in the surging Lacrymosa, that make Sir Colin’s performance so vital and interesting. Here, more than anywhere else, I was acutely aware of Gardner’s curiously stop-start approach to this music, which effectively destroys all sense of line or narrative. Contrast that with Davis’s magisterial control of the work’s long spans, not to mention his awareness of its inner dialogues and striking sonorities. A good example of the latter are the rich, dark trombone pedals in Davis’s Hostias, which launch themselves into the void like departing souls; alas, they count for very little in this new recording.

Frankly, I find this Bergen performance rather bland. Indeed, there’s barely any contrast here, those huge dynamic swings strangely curtailed. Unfortunately, the somewhat distant sound and less-than-ideal perspectives don’t help. For instance, the tenor soloist, Bror Magnus Tødenes, sounds like he’s singing from the car park. (Then again, there’s none of the crude focus pulling that marred Gardner’s Gurre-Lieder.) Davis crowns his glorious performance with a deeply moving Agnus Dei, its lovely ‘Amens’ – Berlioz was rather good at those – bringing with them a wonderful sense of release. Although Gardner’s refined Norwegian choirs are suitably hushed at this point, they lack the sheer frisson of their British counterparts.

Yes, there are moments of real poise and beauty in this performance; however, Gardner’s cultivated reticence never really conveys the complexities of this great score. It’s not just the notes, of course, it’s about the very theatrical way Berlioz uses the performing space. To be fair, that’s more of a challenge in the relative confines of the Grieghallen. Which begs the question: why wasn’t it performed in Bergen’s cathedral, where some of that marvellous Janáček album was recorded? Venue considerations aside, we need to remember that this isn’t just a ceremonial piece, it’s a French ceremonial piece, so it demands a sense of spectacle. For all sorts of reasons, technical as well as musical, that doesn’t come across here.

Davis certainly fits the bill, although I concede some may feel he’s too flamboyant at times, not to say old-fashioned, in his desire for a big sound. (Trouble is, his approach simply underlines the comparative smallness of Gardner’s reading.) In the end, what Sir Colin brings to the piece, that few rivals do, is immense drive and unrivalled insight, and that makes his classic set so special. He may have lost some of that fire in his later years, but I have very fond memories of his Prom performances of the Grande Messe and its ‘little brother’, the Te Deum. In death, as in life, he’s a very hard act to follow.

Gardner’s Requiem lacks scale, character or ambition; disappointing sound, too.

Dan Morgan

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