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Hector BERLIOZ (1803-1869)
Grande Messe des Morts, Op 5. H 75
Richard Lewis (tenor)
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus/Sir Thomas Beecham
rec. live 13 December 1959, Royal Albert Hall, London

This famous performance is not new to CD. It was previously issued, in 1999, on the BBC Legends label (BBCL 4011-2). I bought it then and so I was interested to hear how the BBCL issue would compare to Andrew Rose’s new remastering for Pristine Audio in ambient stereo.

This must have been quite an occasion. In the notes accompanying the BBC Legends issue, the late Graham Melville-Mason (1933-2019), who was present at the concert, tells us that the forces numbered 143 in the orchestra – including the extra brass groups – and 148 in the chorus. He adds that the choir was comprised of professional singers, trained by John McCarthy. Beecham was 80 by then and this was his seventh – and last - performance of the Grande Messe des Morts; it also turned out to be his last appearance in the Royal Albert Hall.

Having made comparisons between the two CD issues of this performance, the Pristine transfer strikes me as having greater clarity, presence and definition. However, some may feel there’s a price to pay for this because the more focused Pristine transfer makes more apparent than the BBC Legends version that often the performance is simply too loud. To be fair, I’m not sure this is entirely the performers’ fault. It may be a by-product of the microphone placing. In addition, I suspect that, understandably, the chorus was under instruction to project into the vast spaces of the Royal Albert Hall. That might account, for instance, for the forthright way in which the men of the Royal Philharmonic Chorus approach the ‘Hostias’ – they are a bit more restrained in the ‘Agnus Dei’. I should also say that the balance of the BBC’s recording tends to favour the choir over the orchestra; that trait, of course, is common to both CD versions.

The crude measure of timings tells me that at just under 78 minutes – the Pristine timing includes nearly a minute of applause – Beecham’s performance is on the swift side. However, there are only a handful of occasions when I think he pushes the tempo too much. One place where I do think he is too swift is at the first entry of the brass groups, where the four brass ensembles herald the ‘Tuba mirum’. Beecham pushes forward here and the result is that the brass players sound pressed and a bit ragged. The ‘Rex tremendae’ is on the fast side, too. In both of these instances, I think that Beecham, though he may get exciting results, sacrifices rather too much grandeur for my taste. However, most of the time Beecham is fully alive to the ceremonial and, let’s be honest, theatrical aspects of the score and his reading is full of character.

I just wish, though, that Sir Thomas’s attention to detail had extended more to the matter of dynamics. I followed the performance in my Bärenreiter vocal score and, to be frank, quieter dynamic markings are often treated in a fairly cavalier fashion. In the first couple of minutes of the ‘Dies irae’, for instance, the choir should surely have sung a little more quietly. As it is, Beecham generates terrific tension in the whole of the ‘Dies irae’, building up to the arrival of the brass groups: how much more effective could this passage have been if the dynamics had been really accurately observed? The Offertoire, a marvellous movement, also suffers from inaccurate dynamics. Both choir and orchestra are simply too loud in the opening minutes of this movement – though I readily accept the microphone placings may have contributed to the effect – and as a result the essential withdrawn feeling is absent. Dynamics improve later in the movement but the very end is nowhere near hushed enough. Overall, this movement is a disappointment. Incidentally, I wish Pristine had given us a few more seconds between the start of the Offertoire and the end of the ‘Lacrymosa’; the two movements follow each other almost attacca.

But mention of the ‘Lacrymosa’ reminds me that this is one of the highlights of this performance. Beecham shows his greatness – and that of Berlioz – here. He leads a magnificent performance of this movement. The implacable loud passages are thrilling but equally successful are the quieter passages – and in these quiet sections the soft thuds on the bass drum  register perfectly. Beecham also conveys the gaunt grandeur of the Introit and ‘Kyrie’ very successfully, pacing the music very intelligently. The Sanctus is another success. In my experience, some tenor soloists have floated the line more delicately than Richard Lewis does here. However, his was a lone voice projecting into the Royal Albert Hall and in view of this and the demanding tessitura I think he was quite right to sing out. Happily, his strong projection is not done at the expense of poetry and his top notes ring out thrillingly.

This is not a perfect performance of the Grande Messe des Morts but, my goodness, it’s one that exudes charisma. I have felt duty bound to point out what strike me as a few shortcomings but if you are an admirer of Berlioz’s great masterpiece and don’t already know this performance you should hasten to hear it. Graham Melville-Mason’s affectionate account of the occasion in the BBC Legends booklet includes the information that Beecham failed to allow sufficient time to get to the Royal Albert Hall; he got stuck in traffic. On arrival, he insisted on going to his dressing room for a drink of water and to gather his thoughts. As a result, the concert was some 10 minutes late in starting Apparently, as he made his leisurely way from his dressing room to go onto the platform, Beecham remarked laconically to the manager of the RAH: “They’ve waited for me before, they’ll wait for me again.” Completely unflappable, Beecham then proceeded to conduct the opening of the Grande Messe des Morts exactly as he wanted it. Talk about sang-froid!

You will hear quite a bit of extraneous noise during the performance, mainly caused by the audience. I found that I was aware of these noises but not distracted by them. Unfortunately, at the end of the performance the audience breaks into applause very quickly indeed, which is a pity, Pristine preserve nearly a minute of applause plus the closing BBC announcement; on the BBC Legends disc the applause was faded out after a few seconds.

The one clear advantage that the BBC Legends issue has over this newcomer is the excellent booklet essay by Graham Melville-Mason, which gives a real flavour of what was clearly a memorable occasion. However, you can tell it was a memorable occasion simply by listening and though the Pristine issue has minimal documentation, on sonic grounds it’s the one to have. Nearly sixty years on, Andrew Rose’s excellent transfer allows us to experience Beecham’s charismatic performance in sound that shows it to best advantage.

John Quinn

Previous review: Ralph Moore

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