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CLASSICAL  January 2008

CLASSICAL January 2008

Subject:

Re: Munch's Berlioz

From:

Steve Schwartz <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

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

Date:

Thu, 31 Jan 2008 16:17:47 -0800

Content-Type:

text/plain

Parts/Attachments:

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Gerhard Griesel asks:

> If you have not done so before, would you like to discuss Berlioz' Te
> Deum?  It ends with, of all things, music for a medal parade where the
> composer uses 12 harps!  It is one of the jewels in my small collection.
> What beautiful music.

I have talked about the John Nelson recording of the Te Deum.  I offer it
again, for those interested.

======================
Hector Berlioz
Te Deum.

Roberto Alagna (tenor)
Marie-Claire Alain (organ)
Chorus and Orchestra of Paris/John Nelson, cond.
Virgin Classics 45449  Total time: 57:40

Berlioz scored one of his major successes with the Te Deum.  Most
writers on the composer consider it the best of his "monumental" works.
Certainly, it's the most conventional.  I find myself a bit out of step.
I like the work quite a bit, but I prefer the wilder and woollier Berlioz
of the Requiem and the Grande Symphonie funebre et triomphale.  The Te
Deum has a curious history.  Berlioz composed the six choral movements.
Then, deciding it wasn't quite grand enough, added an instrumental
"Prelude" and a "March before the Presentation of the Colors." Almost
everyone omits these later movements.  This recording, as far as I know
the only one, presents the Te Deum in its entirety.  I find the additions
well worth hearing, even illuminating.  They make you realize Berlioz's
links to the French music of his time-to the French Empire ceremonial
wind-and-percussion pieces of composers like Le Sueur.  In a sense,
even in these minor works, Berlioz takes the genre further than his
predecessors or contemporaries.

Berlioz's original conception called for a mere two choirs and large
orchestra.  However, an encounter with a performance of Bach's St.
Matthew Passion inspired him to add a third chorus, and his concern for
contrasting vocal and instrumental colors (as well as hearing a London
charity children's choir) prompted him to specify that the third chorus
consist of children.  From the first, Berlioz wants to impress you and
succeeds, not just with grandness but with academic counterpoint.  There's
always a clunky, home-made quality to Berlioz's academic counterpoint:
a whiff of homework clings to it.  It's almost as if he thinks too
strongly in terms of harmony and chorale, where everything marches in
lockstep and the "counterpoint" consists of filigree on the harmonic
idea.  His mastery shows in an expanded view of counterpoint: the idea
of simultaneous activity, rather than fugue and canon, such as one finds
at the end of the "Tu, Christe, Rex gloriae" movement.

I get my jollies mostly from the instrumental and choral colors, as well
as from the astonishing, unexpected chord progressions (even the relatively
mild one at "pleni sunt coeli") that pepper the work and the asymmetrical
melodic phrasing that sounds both odd and right at the same time.  I can
and do admire Beethoven enormously, but years of experience have robbed
his music of the power to surprise me.  I can't go back to the time when
Beethoven's Fifth counted as undiscovered country.  Berlioz's music still
gives me the little unexpected jolt.  It remains, at even the surface,
mysterious.  I recently took part in performances of the Missa Solemnis
and Romeo et Juliette.  The Beethoven was the more complex work musically,
but the Berlioz was harder for performers to grasp.  The parts simply
didn't move the way we expected, possibly because Beethoven has sunk
deeper into our musical culture than Berlioz has.

I like the "Judex crederis" movement best, from its blaring open fifths
at the start, to the swinging counterpoint of the choral opening, to its
harmonic ambiguity throughout.  It reminds me a little of the grand
guignol howling "Lachrymosa" in the Requiem.

This is probably the best performance of the work I've heard.  Abbado's
live DG recording had some great moments, particularly the quieter ones,
but the account as a whole strikes with less sheer force than Nelson's.
Abbado scores over Nelson in the tenor solo, "Te ergo quaesimus," both
with a better tenor (Francisco Araiza) and a more elegant and varied way
with a phrase.  Alagna does the standard contemporary version of Italian
Tenor, as if someone is squeezing him until his eyeballs bulge.  Subtlety
ain't his strong point, and he sounds, unfortunately, like many other
operatic tenors, with, unfortunately, the same level of musicianship.
On the other hand, Araiza could probably do a credible job with melodie
and Lieder.  Yet Alagna has the career, for some reason.

Still, Nelson does everything else much better.  The choirs are clearer
with electrifying attacks and superbly clear diction.  Everything has
more glitz and oomph, exactly right for this Berlioz.  Nelson shakes the
Victorian cobwebs from the work and presents something far more audacious
than what they customarily hand us.  My one complaint (other than Alagna,
who does okay if you haven't heard anyone better) is with the placement
of the "March" after the "Judex crederis," which ends so gloriously,
almost anything else seems anti-climactic.  You can solve this, however,
simply by reprogramming your CD player.  I like it before the "Judex."
It makes a nice transition from the lyrical tenor solo to the grand (and
I do mean grand) finale.

The recorded sound is very bright, almost in your face.  I think it works
well for this piece.

Steve Schwartz

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