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Experimental feature

Like the Mahler Symphony of a Thousand that Daniele Gatti conducted in this same hall last month, to splendid effect, the Berlioz Requiem requires special forces: not so much grandiose forces, unlike Mahler’s, as a slightly enlarged normal orchestra and choir with special extras at crucial points. Berlioz never set out to write an overwhelming piece but aimed to provide one fitting for a grand state occasion, honouring the fallen Frenchmen of a recent war.

Hence its proper title, Grande Messe des Morts, and hence too, perhaps, the relative infrequency of its modern performances compared to the Symphonie Fantastique and the brilliant Overtures. But the composer himself declared that “if I were threatened with the destruction of the whole of my works save one, I should crave mercy for the Messe des Morts.”

Brian Wright’s performance with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, the Goldsmith’s Choral Union and the London Philharmonic Choir capitalised successfully on visual effects: 10 tympanists and their 20 timpani spread evenly across the Albert Hall forestage, the supernumerary four brass bands perched dramatically above the sides, the huge choral teams massed across and above the stage behind the orchestra. This splendid show enhanced the overall impact, although the extra bands and timpani were needed only for two or three vital movements. In the rest of the work, Wright and the Royal Phil were wonderfully exact about capturing precise colours and tones: section by section, we seemed to be hearing just the sounds that Berlioz intended, granted that modern instruments are in some cases refined beyond anything he could have expected.

In short, Wright got the effects, the tempi and the tone illuminatingly right for every movement, without imposing any bright ideas of his own. Berlioz doesn’t need extra bright ideas, just faithful interpretation; his own ideas speak vividly for themselves. I seem to remember that Sir Thomas Beecham, a most loyal Berliozian, contrived somehow to achieve all that, while also adding his own touches of diablerie to wicked effect, but I couldn’t tell you how. In any case, the Wright/Royal Phil performance rendered Berlioz plain, and it is a long while since I heard any performance of the Requiem brought off with such cool, penetrating loyalty. Praise to all concerned.

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