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CLASSICAL  January 2008

CLASSICAL January 2008

Subject:

Munch's Berlioz

From:

Steve Schwartz <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

Moderated Classical Music List <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Thu, 24 Jan 2008 12:39:44 -0800

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Hector Berlioz
Requiem, op. 5

Leopold Simoneau, tenor
New England Conservatory Chorus
Boston Symphony Orchestra/Charles Munch
RCA 82876-66373-2 SACD Total time: 83:37 (2 CDs)

Summary for the Busy Executive: Wild man.

Berlioz's Requiem has little to do with personal grief or with liturgical
salvation, for that matter.  He conceived it as part of the celebrations
in 1837 of those who died in France's revolution of 1830.  The music was
one more impressive element, like the rows of uniformed cavalry, clergy,
brass, and banners - the soundtrack, if you like, of spectacle.  Thus,
it makes little sense to judge the work by the same principles as you
might the Faure or the Howells Requiem.  Berlioz did not write the work
to console, but to wow.

A hundred and seventy years later, it still does.  As with most Berlioz,
the astonishing stands side-by-side with the klunky.  I always put this
down to the fact that the only instruments Berlioz played even moderately
well were the flute and the guitar.  As a result, he had no pianist
"muscle-memory" or even compositional habits gleaned from studying scores
as a performer to lead him into a rut, not that this is necessarily
desirable.  After all, the rut is well-worn for good reasons, as well
as bad.  Berlioz did study, with Le Sueur and Gossec among others, but
his music nevertheless seems to come across as "unschooled." I've always
wondered how well he did in counterpoint classes, and in his writings
he heaped scorn on school fugues.  His own fugues, for example (the
Requiem "Hosanna" in particular), sound both stiffly four-square and
like nobody else's.

Then there's the orchestration, which, of course everybody notices.
Vaughan Williams once remarked, that try as he might, he could never
duplicate the wonderful high-string effects in Wagner.  "Then I realized,
Wagner had thought of the music first." Berlioz is often that way as
well.  The orchestration isn't something laid on, but an integral part
of the musical conception.  At times, however, I suspect Berlioz of
thinking of an instrumental combination first, and then writing music
for it, as in the moment for four brass choirs in the "Tuba mirum"
section.  Sure, it's a Grand Conception and obviously arises from the
text itself, but the music per se is nothing much.  It seems a waste of
brass.  On the other hand, it does belong firmly to the tradition of
French military-ceremonial, open-air music of which Gossec was so much
a part. It is probably, nevertheless, the only spot in the entire Requiem
which speaks so clearly of its time and place and which has so completely
dated.  Still, the norm of the Requiem would do today's avant-garde
composer proud.  Its strangeness still shocks us.

The work moves mainly through the juxtaposition of extreme contrasts.
Beethoven's Missa Solemnis does as well, but while the Missa shows the
composer's scholarly awareness of just about every major mass setting
produced in his lifetime, the Requiem owes little or nothing to anybody
else.  Berlioz's conception of each major section remains strikingly
unique.  "Requiem aeternam" consists largely of unaccompanied wind solos
and choral unisons.  The "Dies irae," with a main theme as powerful as
the traditional chant itself, takes this kind of texture to Tourette-like
bursts of color from the orchestra, like a Whistler nocturne or a Turner
fire-painting.  Even parts of the chorus do the same kind of thing against
other voices.  With the "Quid sum miser," we return to the single,
penitent voice, followed by the roar of the "Rex tremendae." For me, the
single most beautiful movement, the six-part "Quaerens me," comes closest
to consolation and perhaps a personal prayer from the composer himself,
as opposed to the grand guignol of Berlioz's apocalypse.  The wildest
movement of all, of course, follows this: the "Lacrymosa," with brutal
off-beat blows from the orchestra and howls from the choir, interrupted
by a middle section with the sweetness of Italian ice.

Schumann called its successor, the "Offertorium," his favorite movement
of the work.  To stripped-down, near-Minimalist music, the choir on a
line of rising and falling semitones basically whines and sobs its way
through the text.  The choral "melody" doesn't change, except at the
very end, and one has to admire the compositional stones it took for
Berlioz to insist on it for so long.  Anyhow, I understand Schumann's
admiration.  At first, you might become a bit uneasy at hearing this
little strain over and over again for so long a span. But then it somehow
gets inside you and exercises a strange compulsion.  After this, the
quasi-chorale ending may come as a bit of a shock, like a church "amen"
after a Devo tune.

The "Sanctus," with a Marching-to-Pretoria Hosanna fugue, paints an
almost Oriental heaven, as if the heavenly host brushed the discreet
antique cymbal here and there.  Berlioz's heaven is curiously static
and curiously radiant.  Somehow, he gets sound to shine and glow.

But the Requiem doesn't consist solely of isolated movements.  The
composer forges links from one movement to the next.  For example, the
"Hostias" shows up in part in the concluding "Agnus Dei," as does the
opening "Requiem aeternam."

All in all, the Requiem may not be the most profound setting of the text,
but it *is* extraordinarily interesting and certainly true to the composer
himself.  You find yourself remembering the smallest details in a massive
work and becoming astonished all over again.

For a piece so grand and expensive to put on, Berlioz's Requiem has
received quite a few recordings.  I haven't heard anywhere near all of
them.  It seems to me, however, that ideally one gets an exciting reading
in great sound.  The Levine recording is, predictably, nothing much, nor
is the Inbal.  Shaw, in contradiction to his magnificent live readings,
manages to make his Telarc Requiem dull.  Mitropoulos takes no prisoners,
but it's a mono recording.  For me, this RCA Munch is the benchmark.
Munch also recorded the work for DG, but that reading is slightly tamer.
For RCA, Munch's on fire.  You might also consider Colin Davis on Philips.
I don't really agree with Davis's view of Berlioz.  He sees him as far
more classical than I do, as if the composer were the Ingres of music
rather than the Gericault.  Still, he gets great playing from the LSO,
and he has, I suppose, a valid point.  For me, it's all a bit too languid.
I'm shallow and perfectly willing, even eager, for Berlioz to overwhelm
me.  Nevertheless, I find myself, every once in a while with Davis just
to, as it were, clean my palate.  Then it's back to Munch for a few more
years.  If you must have only one Berlioz Requiem, then the RCA Munch
is the one to get.

Steve Schwartz

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