Hector Berlioz Requiem (Grande Messe des morts) op 5 (1837) at St Paul's Cathedral, London, with John Nelson conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra, the Philharmonia Chorus and London Philharmonic Choir with Michael Spyres, soloist. This work benefits from being heard in a grand setting, and there can be few performance places quite as grand as St Paul's Cathedral, Wren's masterpiece built to celebrate the renewal of London after the Great Fire. But the very scale of St Paul's has its down sides. We all carry memories of Colin Davis's Berlioz Requiem at Paul's, conducted shortly before he died, but it was heavily miked : his earlier recording was made in the much smaller Westminster Cathedral. St Paul's doesn't get used for concerts too often, because its acoustics are hard to manage. You can't, for example, build sound deflectors into a historic monument.
Fortunately, for this performance, the best sound engineers in the business were on hand.
The recording, made for Idéale Audience, available for a short time on medici.tv, sounds so good that you wouldn't know what St Paul's can sound like. Indeed, the recording makes the most of the echo, so sounds resonate across great distances, with maximum effect. The filming, directed by Sébastien Glas, also makes the most of the sense of occasion, with long shots panning from high above, emphasizing the sheer grandeur of the performance space. For that, you can forgive the fact that technology contributed a lot to what we hear. Of the several Berlioz Requiems in recent years, thanks to the setting, this recording takes the prize for atmospheric impact. Visuals matter, because any decision to use St Paul's Cathedral means making the most of the spatial aspects of the performance. Those chandeliers are a feature of the Cathedral : not to highlight them would be a lost opportunity. As a man of the theatre, Berlioz would have appreciated the importance of visual effect.
Nelson's pace was reverential, giving prominence to the religious origins of a Mass. Good blending of choral voices : hushed and suitably penitential. In the Dies Irae, the Berliozian personality in the piece emerged more clearly. In the darkness, the off-stage brass ensembles were invisible, but there was no mistaking their dramatic impact. The on-stage brass players responded, standing not seated, again maximizing the connection between forces known and unknown, which after all is what a Requiem is about. Centre stage, the row of percussionists projected an ominous roar. An understated Quid sum miser contrasted with the Rex tremendae, the filming enhancing the sense of movement. The singing in the a capella Quaerens me was particularly effective, the voices joined in the Lacrimosa by percussion and brass. The string playing that marks the beginning of the Domine Jesu Christe came over clean and clear, the choruses intoning quietly in the background, the orchestral "voice" developing well. With the Hostias, a more Berliozian character returned - powerful brass chords, like trumpets at the End of Time. The tenor part in the Sanctus sits uncomfortably high, so even Michael Spyres was challenged at first, but he projected very well : the sound carrying out into the vast space around him, the choirs following in his wake. Spyres's Glorias pealed gloriously, like bells, and the Hosanas in the choruses rang joyously. With the Agnus Dei, Nelson returned to the reverent hush with which the Requiem began. Since St Paul's Cathedral operates as a church (it's not just a tourist site) it was utterly appropriate that this sedate approach to the Requiem should reflect the spiritual aspects of the piece.