Edward Gardner’s Berlioz “Requiem”

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BERLIOZ: Requiem / Bror Magnus Tødenes, ten; Royal Northern College of Music Chorus; Bergen Philharmonic Choir, Orchestra, Musicians & Crescendo; Edward Gardner, cond / Chandos CHSA 5219 (live: Bergen, May 2018)

Following hard on the heels of Ludovic Morlot’s good but somewhat disappointing recording of the Berlioz Requiem is this new version by Edward Gardner, who has rapidly become one of my favorite conductors. It is presented on the hard disc as “5.0 channel surround sound,” but since I was only able to review it via high-quality MP3 downloads, I could only judge it that way.

Despite the fact that Gardner’s tempi are on the conservative side, he does not allow the music to drag, and, more importantly, he makes much more of the dynamics contrasts than Morlot did. Indeed, both the orchestra and the double chorus are so finely graded that one can discern differences between p, pp and ppp as well as f, ff and fff (louder still in the “Dies irae”). His forward pulse is much more similar to that of Leonard Bernstein’s great recording (listed in my Penguin’s Girlfriend’s Guide) as well as the recordings of Dimitri Mitropoulos (with Nicolai Gedda) and Charles Munch (with Leopold Simoneau). Indeed, his somewhat “serrated” phrasing, more strongly detailed rhythmically even in slow passages and lacking the conventional smoothness of many modern orchestras, recall Munch even more than Mirtopoulos (who was nevertheless very, very good). And thankfully, Gardner’s choirs sing much better than the New England Conservatory Chorus on the old Munch recording.

Like Morlot, he also brings out the biting, somewhat acidic quality of the winds, a Berlioz hallmark in virtually all of his music (though less so in most of L’Enfance du Christ). Although, as mentioned, his phrasing is reminiscent of Munch, his orchestra doesn’t quite have the Munch “sound,” which featured somewhat blowsy string playing, not so much a defect as merely an aesthetic preference. Bror Magnus Tødenes is also a very fine tenor, if not on a par with Stuart Burrows or Gedda.

As the performance progressed, however, I felt that Gardner sometimes failed to get “under the skin” of the music, There’s not much reflection on the death of a great person here so much as a good, hearty ride. This is a shame, as he comes very close to getting it right in so many other ways, but he is not alone in this respect. Thus I am back to my Bernstein and Mitropoulos recordings as the best overall I’ve heard. What a pity that Toscanini never recorded it!

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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