Saturday, May 13, 2017

Berlioz’ apocalypse restrained at San Francisco


San Francisco Symphony Orchestra and Chorus at Davies Symphony Hall

Berlioz in 1839, two years after the
Requiem’s composition: portrait miniature
by Paul de Pommayrac.
In the program book for the three performances of Berlioz’ Requiem Op.5 H.75 (Grande Messe des Morts) conducted by Charles Dutoit on May 4–6, the note on the work’s instrumentation was headed “For this reduction by Charles Dutoit–” … an ambiguous wording which could be taken to mean that M. Dutoit has his own preferred edition of the work, or that reductions were necessitated by (presumably) space limitations.

Berlioz’ score specifies 192 players including four extra brass groups placed at the corners of the main body of performers, an array unmatched before or since by any work in the standard repertoire; for whichever reason, this was reduced to a total of 113. As well as the anticipated boiling-down of his prescribed string strength (totaling 108) to normal full-orchestra strings (60 players), this halved in number the main orchestra’s bassoons and horns and the roster for each of the four brass groups, which are used only in the three movements (Dies irae, Rex tremendae, and Lacrymosa) principally responsible for the Requiem’s famous (or infamous) reputation for “musical gigantism.”

It was, therefore, a pity that this “musical gigantism” was the very aspect of the work emphasized in the pre-performance publicity and the pre-concert talk. I wonder how many audience members expecting to be flattened by an 80-minute sound barrage were surprised to find the Requiem predominantly quiet and contemplative, with even the “big moments” relatively underwhelming.

Charles Dutoit. 
In his talk, SF Symphony Program Annotator James Keller gave a concise and entertaining account of the somewhat convoluted background to the Requiem’s composition and first performance (as well as a well-deserved plug for Berlioz’s Mémoires, surely the greatest work of literature to come from the pen of a great composer), but in his booklet notes he also stated that “the Requiem is usually given with the forces reduced rather than increased, and it is probably for the best.”

At risk of laboring the point, and with respect, no it isn’t. Berlioz cared passionately about this work and calculated precisely the resources he needed to achieve his expressive intent, which surely embraced maximum contrast between awe, terror and majesty on the one hand, and supplication, tenderness and pity on the other. The huge instrumental forces are not an unrealistic ideal to give leeway for comfortable adaptation to circumstances, but his required accompaniment to equally precisely calculated choral forces, totaling 210 singers. Berlioz states: “If space permit, the Chorus may be doubled or tripled and the orchestra be proportionately increased [my italics].” 

On this occasion the combined SF Symphony Chorus, Young Women’s Choral Projects of San Francisco, and Golden Gate Men’s Chorus numbered 215 and, lest this review seems over-negative thus far, they excelled throughout. However, Berlioz wrote for sopranos, tenors and basses only, rather than the normal soprano/alto/tenor/bass divisions of today, and so these performances used the recent edition by SF-based musician and editor Adrian G Horn, which “constructs a dedicated alto part out of the second soprano and first tenor parts”. This makes the work far more accessible for modern choirs, and I could detect almost no difference from previously heard live performances and recordings.

I wonder, though, if it is a feature of Mr Horn’s edition that the full choral forces are only used in the Dies irae, Rex tremendae, and Lacrymosa? After M Dutoit’s precise, measured, but to my ears slightly matter-of-fact orchestral opening to the initial Requiem et Kyrie, followed by successive quiet divided choral entries (beautifully terraced here), the first fortissimos, marked “unison” by Berlioz, were sung by the SF Symphony Chorus only. The ladies of the Choral Projects and the men of the Golden Gate remained seated and mute. This made for a regrettable loss of impact, and even more so when the same thing happened in the final Agnus Dei, where Berlioz returns to the music of the opening and closes the circle of his colossal structure.

First page of the Tuba mirum, from Berlioz’ holograph manuscript.
The other outsize orchestral demands for the Requiem lie in the percussion department. Starting at the Mors stupebit section of the Dies irae, Berlioz uses no less than 16 timpani plus bass and tenor drums, tam-tams and cymbals. The timps were all present and correct, but after the brass fanfares rang down left and right from the balconies (rather etiolated from the halving of their numbers), M Dutoit quashed the initial ff dynamic for the massed timpani onslaught when the choral basses entered, also fortissimo. Berlioz does not amend that ff marking for the drums when the voices begin, and the effect of strain and visceral terror generated by forcing them to sing through the roar and thunder was all but lost. (Also, sad to say, Berlioz’ ferocious percussion reinforcement for the brass, timpani and chorus, when they come back for the movement's climactic Judex section, was severely emasculated by reducing his required quartet of tam-tams to one only.)

After all this sound and fury, the lonely, wandering choral tenor line of the brief Quid sum miser, punctuated by plaintive English horn with ‘cello and bass underpinning, formed the perfect contrast before the next onslaught, this time triumphant, of the Rex tremendae, while the following unaccompanied Quaerens me (Berlioz once again securing maximum effective contrast from movement to movement), for mixed chorus in six parts and very soft throughout, was for me one of the choral highlights of the performance.

Then came the last of the three brass-and-timps blockbusters, the Lacrymosa. Berlioz sets this juggernaut to Judgment under way with a thrillingly original progression of upward ‘cello and bass rumble, woodwind fanfare, fortissimo violin and viola slash, and dissonant horn blast repeated again and again through the first pages of the movement. Over this swaying, hypnotic repetition, the chorus intones a long-breathed melody with almost incantatory effect. Everything swung forward with seemingly unstoppable momentum, apart from rather disaffected slashings from some upper strings, and when the bands and massed timpani finally joined the fray the effect was suitably overwhelming (how skillfully Berlioz calculates his ascent to the summit!).

The final chord of the Lacrymosa, however, lacked its clearly marked long diminuendo, seeming instead just to stop and thus negating Berlioz’ careful stilling of the previous tumultuous mood for the sublime Offertorium that follows. At the outset of this seventh movement, he allots all the melodic interest to the orchestra, with just intermittent oscillations on Domine Jesu Christe muttered by the chorus. But there’s a conundrum. The final edition of the Requiem published in Berlioz’ lifetime has metronome marks heading each of the ten movements, and if strictly followed, the quarter note=84 marking for the Offertorium results in almost a march tempo. M Dutoit adhered pretty closely to it, but for me the price of such fealty was to lose the sense of slow, winding desolation that other conductors, taking slower tempi, have achieved in this movement.

The brief Hostias eighth movement – another oasis of calm – introduces yet another unprecedented effect. Intoned monotonous chants by the male chorus are interspersed by long-held, stratospherically high flute chords against deep trombone pedal notes offstage. This extraordinary sense of space and distance, from the celestial to the cavernous, with the centrally placed flutes answered by the trombones from left and right, came off marvelously in this performance, as it did again in the final Agnus Dei where Berlioz reintroduces this combination of instruments near the start.

In between these two movements comes the Sanctus – surely one of the cruelest tests for a vocal soloist in the concert repertoire. Berlioz makes his single tenor wait for over an hour until this moment and then requires him to sing his long, exposed high-lying solo with virtually no orchestral introduction, each phrase repeated by the female chorus, pp dolcissimo, against a delicate background of solo flute, four solo violins, and tremolando violas. Any hint of operatic wobble or throatiness kills the ecstatic mood stone-dead, but here the American tenor Paul Groves was outstandingly sure-voiced, firm but without any effortful stridency. At the end of the solo a robust choral fugue on Hosanna in excelcis breaks in, but when this comes to its natural close the opening section returns, the string accompaniment yet more elaborately delicate this time around. And this time around Mr Groves outdid even his earlier effort, floating his high tessitura with the utmost radiance and purity of tone.

This was the high point, in every sense, of a performance of this extraordinary and unique masterpiece which, flawed though it was, still thrilled the capacity audience in Davies Symphony Hall. 


San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, Louise M. Davies Symphony Hall, Thursday, May 4, 2017, 8 p.m.

Photos: Berlioz: Courtesy Musée Hector Berlioz and the Hector Berlioz website; Charles Dutoit: Courtesy SFSO; Berlioz manuscript: IMSLP Petrucci Music Library.

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