Morlot’s New Berlioz “Requiem”

Berlioz001

BERLIOZ: Requiem / Kenneth Tarver, ten; Seattle Pro Musica; Seattle Symphony Chorale & Orch.; Ludovic Morlot, cond / Seattle Symphony Media SSM1019

The Berlioz Requiem is very hard to bring off on recordings because of its almost surround-sound quality when heard in person, particularly the section where the brass choirs play from different corners of the auditorium. The recording that I think pulls it off best is the old Leonard Bernstein version from the 1970s, recorded in the same cathedral in which the original premiere took place. It was recorded in Quadraphonic Sound but, for some strange reason, only issued as a conventional stereo disc, yet when it was played on a quad system you got the effect of surround sound.

My reaction to Morlot’s conducting in previous releases has been mixed. He certainly draws a great sound out of his orchestra in everything he does, but occasionally misses the mark in feeling. This was especially true of his performances of Henri Dutilleux’s music, which sounded prosaic compared to Charles Munch’s far more detailed and colorful readings. In this performance of the Berlioz Requiem, I felt that the opening Introit was not only a bit rushed but also prosaic in feeling. It also seemed to me a bit too loud, having none of the mystery of not only the Bernstein recording but even those of Dimitri Mitropoulos (which I also own) with Nicolai Gedda as tenor soloist, Munch (either of his recordings) or Colin Davis. It does, however, have the requisite “Berlioz sound,” meaning a very bright wind sonority, and good transparency of texture.

I did, however, like the opening of the Dies irae, although the engineers seemed to me to do very little to capture the surround sound of the brass choirs (I even listened to it through headphones after listening to it through speakers, and it’s just a 2-channel effect). Even Roger Norrington’s performance, which I didn’t particularly care for, did a better job (not to mention the Bernstein). They also seemed to me to be suppressing the volume at this moment (except for the loudest passage with the cymbals and tympani), which derails the impact of what I’m sure Morlot was trying to achieve.

The later portions of the piece, however, have good feeling to them; either Morlot or his orchestra seems to have loosened up by then, but the narrow dynamic range of the recording still inhibits the listener’s appreciation of Berlioz’ achievement. Tenor Kenneth Tarver, in the Sanctus, has a lovely tone and an incredibly easy-sounding high range if a slightly uneven vibrato.

In toto, then, a good performance if somewhat lacking in dramatic contrast as well as a bit tense in the first couple of sections.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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