Saturday, May 06, 2017

Hector, I Love You, But What Were You Thinking?

To SF Symphony last night for the second of three performances of Berlioz's Grande Messe des Morts, better known as the Requiem, Op. 5, of Hector Berlioz.

James Keller's notes for the piece are a hoot, but the first thing that caught my eye is that these performances are being done in a reduced version by conductor Charles Dutoit, who is on the podium this week. Reduced, and yet:
4 flutes, 2 oboes and 2 English horns, 4 clarinets, 4 bassoons, 8 trombones (all offstage), 3 tubas, 8 timpani (some timpanists also play percussion), bass drum, suspended cymbals, tam-tam, tenor drum, and strings (16 1st violin, 14, 2nd violin, 12 violas, 10 cellos, 8 double basses), mixed chorus of 80 sopranos and altos, 60 tenors, 70 basses, and a tenor soloist. In addition, 4 brass ensembles positioned at the four points of the compass, consisting of N, 2 cornets, 2 trombones, and tuba, E 2 trumpets and 2 trombones, W 2 trumpets and 2 trombones, and S 2 trumpets, 2 trombones, and 2 tubas.
The score also gives instructions should a performance feature more players.

In any event, holy cow, this is a bizarre piece even by Berlioz's standards. Completed in 1837, the composer revised it in 1852 and in 1866-67, so evidently....well, I'm curious about the earlier versions and might check whether the first version has ever been recorded. I mean, I am making an assumption here, that only the last version is performed and recorded these days.

As I said, it is a rather bizarre work. It is quite long at about 80 minutes, and Berlioz makes compositional choices that, shall we say, are not the obvious ones. Your typical Dies Irae is a flamethrower; see Verdi, for example. Not this one, which is hushed and slow-ish, with Berlioz holding the fireworks for the Tuba Mirum and, perhaps, Symphonie Fantastique. The text-setting is awkward and so is the vocal phrasing. Last night was the first time in a long while that I really regretted not getting a recording in advance of a performance, because I'd never heard a note of the piece, and, well. I wish I'd had an idea of what was coming.

It has some fabulous moments, some very loud, as when everybody is going at once and the only way you know there are strings is that you can see them bowing furiously, and some very quiet, as in the closing Sanctus, and some in the middle (whichever movement it is where the strings and brass do nothing for an extended period and it's just the chorus and winds). But formally, well, it is messy and awkward, the composer's immense ambition somewhat exceeding his ability to create something unified. By Les Troyens, with a great dramatic libretto to hang his fabulous music on, he'd come a long way.

I must also say that the performance itself left something to be desired. The orchestra, normally a miracle of precision, had some off moments at the beginnings of phrases. The huge chorus, consisting of the SF Symphony Chorus, Young Women's Choral Projects of San Francisco (Susan McMane, dir.), and Golden Gate Men's Chorus (Joseph Piazza, dir.) sounded as though it needed to live with the work for a good deal longer, which is one way of saying they sounded underrehearsed. There was a general lack of confidence, heads were deep in scores much of the time, and the sopranos in particular had noticeable tuning problems in exposed phrases, of which, alas, there are many.

This piece is nothing like the other big choral works in the SFS Chorus's repertory; that's a group that could probably sing the Brahms or Verdi Requiems from memory and that does amazing work on shorter and less oddball works. But it's strange enough to make the Missa Solemnis sound easy, and that is saying something.

Other opinions:

  • Joshua Kosman, Chron, calls the performance anemic, and yeah, I'll go along with that. Surprising lack of energy for the number of people in the house. I found myself wondering at one point what Donald Runnicles would have done with it.


Anonymous said...

From what I read about the version you heard, the revision consists not of reducing the instrumental parts, but in creating an alto section. Berlioz wrote for SSTTBB chorus (in particular for a chorus that is 1/3 tenors, for which the writing is often loud, high, and exposed). That apparently was the norm for French music, and Berlioz only switched to SATB in his latest works (L'Enfance du Christ, Troyens, B&B), after conducting choruses in England and Germany. The arranger has created an alto part by grabbing portions of the second soprano and first tenor parts. Given our British/German choral tradition it is obvious why one might want to do this. Nevertheless, I think the way to do the piece is to send your second altos home and bring in the entire tenor section of another large chorus.

I think very highly of the piece, and I think you will too if you can get more familiar with it. But that's difficult to do. Recordings help, but are still not quite satisfactory: microphones can't really capture the quality of sound in space that is a principal feature of the piece. And the problems of coordination and balance are extreme. I've heard it live four or five times and never been entirely satisfied, although John Nelson in the War Memorial Opera House and Esa-Pekka Salonen in Disney Hall came the closest.

I can say more another time. Meanwhile, I'm in Houston, where on Thursday I heard a really great Götterdämmerung. Christine Goerke covered herself in glory, and the rest of the cast (including Patrick Summers and his band) were not far behind.

Michael Strickland said...

It was Dutoit, who I have enjoyed over the years, who is to blame for turning bold, eccentric music into lugubrious mush. This was my first time hearing the music live, and it sort of pissed me off, partly because most people will think the tedium is inherent in the work rather than the performance. Part of the problem is that Berlioz wrote it as a Sensurround Spectacular to be experienced in a huge, French cathedral with reverb for days. In fact, that has become my new bucket list item, to hear the Berlioz Requiem in a Big Ass French Cathedral. I had great hopes for Dutoit with this music, but he squeezed all the juice out and made it tedious rather than thrilling.

Alex Ross said...

I learned the piece from Munch's Boston LPs, which still sound thrilling in the right transfer (early attempts to put them on CD were unsuccessful). Even better is the live Beecham recording. Colin Davis is predictably excellent.

Alex Ross said...

Turns out the Beecham is on YouTube. The Tuba mirum is really something else (this is Royal Albert Hall, of course): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l4d52O58ymY&feature=youtu.be&t=15m10s

Anonymous said...

My reaction on hearing the Berlioz Requiem in concert was that the stark, blocky compositional style made it sound more like an Ode to Stalin than anything else I'd heard that pre-dated any actual Odes to Stalin.