BERLIOZ Grande Messe des Morts
This disc is taken from the original master tapes of what is now West German Radio. If ever there was a piece that would seem to demand the most up-to-date studio treatment, it is the Grande Messe des morts, yet the clarity and depth of this mono recording is marvellous. Curiously enough, the least successful section is the Sanctus, where Nicolai Gedda is much too closely miked; and the high violins in the second ‘Hosanna’ do sound rather scrawny.
There is some slight cause for alarm at the beginning, with a ragged entry from the sopranos. But the choir soon settles down and by the time he reaches the ‘Dies irae’, Dimitri Mitropoulos has really got into his stride. The chromatic string phrase with which Berlioz twice fools you into expecting the next section sends shivers down the spine; when the four supplementary brass ensembles finally enter, the effect is stupendous. Moreover, the brass and timpani don’t drown the basses at ‘Tuba mirum’.
The ‘Rex tremendae’ has a real sense of urgency when the tempo increases, the choir articulating with impressive precision. Mitropoulos then overemphasises the first syllables of ‘Quaerens’ and ‘Ingemisco’. But next is the ‘Lacrymosa’, where Berlioz holds back his heavy artillery till halfway through: then, even without a brass group at each point of the compass, the effect is overwhelming.
In the ‘Quid sum miser’ the tenors lack the composer’s required humility and fear. More fools they, as pitfalls lie ahead: come the ‘Hostias’, where the men alternate with high flutes and low trombones, the tenors sing noticeably flat. That is not the case, fortunately, with Gedda’s mellifluous Sanctus. The hushed ending of the Agnus Dei sets the seal on a remarkable performance.