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The grandest mass of all


Of all the requiems in the classical repertoire, Berlioz's is the grandest. Entitled Grand Messe des Morts, it was composed for performance in 1837 in the huge church of Les Invalides (photograph courtesy of Victor Grigas). It demands resources on a enormous scale and, as a result, it is seldom performed. It is scored for a full orchestra (including four sets of timpani) and enhanced by four off-stage brass bands, a full chorus and solo tenor. We know this music well from listening to the LSO recording on CD, and were intrigued to know how the live performance would differ (Usher Hall, 22 August). The answer is night and day.

We were lucky enough to be sitting in the Grand Circle, where three of the four brass bands (trumpets, trombones and a tuba) were stationed in the aisles, the fourth aloft in the organ gallery. The effect of the brass ensembles in the Dies Irae and Rex tremendae was electrifying. No recording can convey the spine-tingling excitement of these relays of fanfares which build the sense of drama, doom and torment.

Esa-Pekka Salonen conducted the Philharmonia Orchestra with precision and economy, the Edinburgh Festival Chorus celebrated their 50 years by singing their hearts out and the tenor soloist Lawrence Brownlee was splendid. How terrifying it must be to sit waiting for so long for the Sanctus before starting to sing. Berlioz' orchestration is wonderfully varied and this music has been ringing in my ears ever since.

The evening led to reflections of a different kind, about how delicate the Festival organisers' financial balancing act must be. Even if you discount the excellent vounteers of the Festival Chorus, the number of professional musicians in the Berlioz is daunting: conductor, tenor soloist, chorus master and an orchestra of 120 musicians. Yet the Festival has to sell this concert at the same ticket prices as the previous evening, when pianist Lang Lang filled the Usher Hall: number of professional musicians just one!


This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on September 2, 2015 3:39 PM.

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