Thursday, 24 May 2018

Bergen Philharmonic Berlioz Grande Messe des Morts

Edward Gardner in Bergen
Livestreamed from Norway, Edward Gardner conducted the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra in Berlioz Grande Messe des Morts
op 5 1837, with Bror Magnus Tødenes, the Edvard Grieg Kor, the Bergen Philharmonic Choir, Collegiûm Mûsicûm Chorus and the Royal Northern College of Music Choir. An expansively smooth introduction, the long lines stretching as if reaching out into space. Interpretively valid, since a Requiem is a quest for meaning in the face of death.  This long, surging line was picked up by the choirs, creating a magnificent effect in a relatively small auditorium like the Grieghallen.  Maximum impact without strain : the prayer-like moments, like hushed Kyrie, were very well judged, and all the more moving for that.  Rich dark undertones in the orchestra introduced the Dies Irae, where the choral writing pits different sections against each other, to create a sense of division and anxiety. The fanfare blazed - brass underpinned by rumbling thunder, voices rising slowly and darkly, like the spirits of the dead.  Hellfire conjured up in a concert hall !  No wonder the Lachrymosa felt sorrowful.  Even at this stage in his career, Berlioz was a man of the theatre.

Gardner emphasized the details suggesting Catholic ritual : the choirs singing quietly, like penitents.  Though the orchestra is huge, it did not over-dominate : our sympathy should be with the lost souls.  A wonderfully bright start to the next section, sharp, clear intonation indicating the passage away from hell to resolution. Crisp interaction between female and male voiuce, creating animation, contrasting well with the sudden descent into darkness: low chords and distant trumpets, pulsating strings and more fanfares. I loved the groaning bassoons, followed by clear, pure high voices.  Now, when the choirs sing of tearfulness, their voices are edged with hope. The four brass choirs called from above the main platform, like the Last Trumpets of Revelation, followed by huge waves of timpani, and the crash of cymbals.  Exceptionally vivid brass playing - where has Bergen been hiding these players ? They're world class.  It felt as if the Bergen Philharmonic were ushering in the End of Time.

But that's not negative because that's when the the dead will rise again. "Domine, domine".  Thus the new theme arising from the orchestra, with long, sweeping lines again, this time more serene and comforting.  "Libera!"  and a heartfelt "Amen!".  Ominous tubas, as baleful as ophicleides.

In the Sanctus, the individual emerges from the throng. Bror Magnus Tødenes's delivery was powerful, not Heldentenor, but hero, nonetheless, his voice ringing out and soaring into the performance space. The echo in the hall created a halo around the voice, making it feel as if it were reverberating from heaven.  Long chords, too, in the Agnus Dei, hushed reverential singing, winds and brass projecting into space.  The long chords signify transition, the crossing of great distances spiritual as well as temporal.  The pace was measured, the destination looming into focus with great portent. 

Berlioz Grande Messe des Morts is dramatic, but this performance was more dramatic than many, particularly as the impact was created by quality, not quantity for its own sake.  Gardner, with his background in opera, realizes that drama lies in contrast and tension, clarity of form and meaning.  When he left the English National Opera for Bergen, many of my friends wept because he was their hearthrob, "Sexy Ed".  But I thought the move was wise, and told him so. He grinned. He was right. He needed to broaden his scope and prove himself as head of a really good orchestra.  With Bergen, he's hit the jackpot.   Bergen may be a relatively small city but the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra is one of the oldest public orchestras. If they sounded a little tired some years back, they are now revitalized and dynamic,  very much one of the great orchestras of Europe. Even their livestream is classy. The presenter knows what he's talking about musically and assumes his audiences do too - why do some orchestras hire presenters who kid around and act stupid ?  Bergen treats its audiences with respect, and deserves respect in return.  This performance was being recorded by Chandos for future release. Grab it. 
It rains, in Bergen !

1 comment:

Eirik Os Simonsen said...

"Exceptionally vivid brass playing - where has Bergen been hiding these players ? They're world class."

They've been hiding in plain sight:
https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eikanger-Bjørsvik