BERLIOZ Grande Messe des Morts
With the news of the death of Sir Colin Davis in April it is a melancholy pleasure to welcome what must be one of his last recordings. It comes from St Paul’s Cathedral, whereas Davis’s 1969 version was made in Westminster Cathedral: either church a reasonable substitute for Les Invalides, where the Requiem had its first performance in December 1837. The choir is a bit larger and the strings less numerous than the forces at Berlioz’s disposal but that is not so relevant for listeners at home.
The St Paul’s acoustic is something to be reckoned with, though, and it is striking to observe how careful Davis is to allow for the famous echo. He pauses before the basses’ second ‘Mors stupebit’ and again at the twofold ‘Confutatis maledictis’. (The prolonged note at 11'30", tr 1, is less understandable: an editing glitch, perhaps.) Davis’s interpretation overall is much the same as in 1969, save for an unlooked-for broadening of the tempo at the final ‘Hosanna’ in the Sanctus. As before, he gets a perfect dying-away from the chorus at ‘quam olim Abrahae’. There’s some lovely orchestral detail: woodwind semiquavers illustrating ‘lux perpetua’; stabbing, syncopated chords from the upper strings in the ‘Lacrymosa’.
The chorus is excellent: the basses a bit too redolent of the crowd at Wembley at ‘Tuba mirum’, but a hushed, immaculately balanced account of the unaccompanied ‘Quarens me’. I have a slight preference for Ronald Dowd’s forthright Sanctus but Barry Banks, sounding some way off, is effortlessly mellifluous. Whether in 2012 or 1969, Colin Davis is a must-have.