MusicWeb International, October 2011
This set represents the first fruits on disc of Paul McCreesh?s association with the Wratislavia Cantans Festival in Wroc!aw, Poland. The festival was established in 1966 and McCreesh became its artistic Director in 2006. This new recording is also the first on his new label, Winged Lion, one so new that its website is not even up and running yet. The new label will work in partnership with Signum Classics. This will be the future source of new recordings from the Gabrieli Consort and this recording of the Grande Messe des Morts is planned as the first of a series of oratorios from Wroc!aw.
Berlioz calls for vast forces to perform his Grande Messe des Morts – which, hereafter, I will refer to as the Requiem for convenience – and at the first performance the choir numbered 210 singers and 190 instrumentalists. This recording all but replicates those forces. Paul McCreesh has assembled an Anglo-Polish ensemble, drawn from the bodies listed above, which performs under the title Ensemble Wroc!aw. The combined choir comprises sixty tenors and sixty-two basses and seventy-five women – for much of the time the altos do not have a separate part. This is only very slightly less than the forces specified by the composer. The orchestra is on a comparable scale. As requested by the composer, there are fifty violins. The rest of the string choir – eighteen violas, nineteen cellos and eighteen basses – virtually replicates Berlioz?s requirements. The woodwind consists of four flutes, two each of oboes and cors anglais, four clarinets, eight bassoons, twelve horns and fourteen percussionists. Oh, and I nearly forgot, there are also the four brass ensembles, comprising a ?mere? thirty-eight musicians!
I?ve given a list of the forces because it shows the very considerable trouble to which McCreesh has gone in order to give listeners an authentic experience of this magnificent score. However, assembling the forces was but the start. All the brass and percussion instruments – including the sixteen timpani – are period instruments and the brass ensembles include four cornets Ã pistons in one group and, in another, a quartet of ophicleides. Though the string players – and, I suspect, their woodwind colleagues – play on modern instruments, they do so in ?period- informed? style, especially as regards vibrato. The choir plays its part also; they use French pronunciation of the Latin text. This may unsettle Anglophone listeners at first – most noticeably the way in which the vowel ?u? is pronounced – but one soon adjusts.
So, Paul McCreesh has done his homework – and the performers use an edition of the score that he has made, based on the original nineteenth century sources. The key question is, has he captured the spirit of the work? Anyone who is familiar with his previous scholarly but exciting recordings will not be surprised to learn that the answer is emphatically in the affirmative.
I?ve heard some fine recordings of the Berlioz Requiem in the past, including those by Previn, Munch (review), Mitropoulos and Sir Colin Davis – his first recording with the LSO; I?ve not heard his later Dresden version – see review. This new recording is more than fit to take its place alongside the very best.
The playing and choral singing are consistently superb. The ?Big Moments? register with tremendous power. For example, the ?Tuba mirum? (CD 1, track 2, 5:12) begins with an awesome chord from the massed brass players and when the timpani join the fray (6:24) the thunderous, dull sound made by the period drums is thrilling. When the basses then proclaim the text they do so with magnificent thrust, yet without any suggestion of forced tone. A few moments later, ?Judex ergo? is overwhelming. Incidentally, McCreesh achieves the not inconsiderable feat of keeping his four brass groups in time and together; that?s something that is not managed on all recordings. The Lacrymosa is comparably powerful at times, suggesting the inexorable progress of an implacable juggernaut – and in this movement the tenors attract special notice; they are tireless in the face of the composer?s unreasonable demands and despite these challenges they can still sing the Pie Jesu with sweet tone. The opening of Rex tremendae is suitably majestic but as this movement progresses the flexibility with which the large choir sings the faster music is most impressive.
Anyone who knows the Berlioz Requiem will be well aware that the monumental moments are only a part of the story. Notwithstanding the huge forces that he demands, Berlioz is very restrained – almost austere – in his scoring of much of this work. Paul McCreesh and his musicians are outstandingly successful in delivering these passages.
In the unaccompanied Quaerens me, a wonderful movement, the unanimity of the choral singing is really something at which to marvel when one considers how many singers are involved. The ladies and tenors produce a lovely supple tone while the basses provide a firm foundation for the ensemble. The Offertorium, Domine Jesu Christe, is my favourite movement in the work. Berlioz subtitled this Choeur des Ã¢mes du purgatoire (Chorus of souls in purgatory) and it?s one of the most imaginative parts of the work. The choir sings the text, in unison, to a hypnotically repeated two-note phrase. Meanwhile the thematic interest lies in the orchestra. The strings have subdued fugal material while the woodwind weave beguiling lines. It?s very difficult to balance all this but it seems to me that McCreesh does so in a masterly way; every strand is clear and when the choir is freed from its two-note ?bondage? towards the very end it?s a moment of beauty and release.
The Sanctus is another imaginatively scored movement and another that?s difficult to bring off. McCreesh achieves something of a coup by placing his tenor soloist at a distance – he was high up in a gallery. Valery Gergiev did something similar in a live performance that I reviewed a couple of years ago and it?s most effective. Robert Murray has a light tone. He also has quite a quick vibrato. Some may find that troubling but I don?t feel it?s excessive. In an extensive and very interesting interview in the booklet, McCreesh very validly observes that this solo is right in the haut-contre tradition. Murray sounds suitably plangent and despite the merciless tessitura he manages to be gently lyrical. The orchestral scoring is wonderfully subtle during the passages in which the soloist is involved and when the solo material is reprised the addition of gently brushed cymbals and very quiet bass-drum strokes is mysterious and magical and is superbly realised here. I was a little surprised by the smooth legato with which McCreesh gets the choir to sing the Hosanna until I re-read an essay by Michael Steinberg in which he points out that Berlioz directs the choir to sing this passage ?without violence, sustaining the notes well instead of accenting them one by one.? I?ve never heard those instructions so precisely observed as on this recording.
The austere woodwind chords at the start of the Agnus Dei are perfectly balanced. In this last movement Berlioz draws together a number of thematic threads from earlier in the work, providing something of a summation. The works ends with a wonderful, gently glowing six-fold Amen, where Berlioz effects some unexpected modulations, underpinning the singing and the string arpeggios with the quiet thudding of funeral drums. McCreesh treats this passage expansively, but just to the right extent, drawing this outstanding account of the Requiem to a pacific close.
So far I?ve concentrated on the performers, and rightly so. However, it?s essential to acknowledge the heroic work of the engineering team. The church in which the recording was made sounds to have an ideal, resonant acoustic. That?s been very intelligently used by the engineers. They have managed the significant feat of giving us a great deal of detail, all expertly integrated, while preserving a sense of space. This is a huge challenge and one that was not completely met by the Philips engineers who recorded Sir Colin Davis?s 1969 version in London?s Westminster Cathedral. There have been great advances in recording technology over the last four decades but even so the engineering here is most impressive. The quiet passages are atmospherically reported. As for the imposing moments, such as the Judex ergo, all I can say is that I got the best results one afternoon when I had the house to myself so there was no restraint on the volume control! I noted with interest that two of the technical team – producer Nicholas Parker and balance engineer Neil Hutchinson – were also involved with McCreesh?s outstanding 2006 recording of Haydn?s Creation (review). For this latest recording they?re joined by recording engineer Andrew Halifax.
I?m afraid I do have to register a couple of niggles over the presentation. The discs come enclosed in a lavish, hardback slip case. The documentation is good, including a large number of black and white photos. Unfortunately, one or two basic details, such as the catalogue number are absent and, most regrettably of all, nowhere is there a track-list. You may be irritated also, as I was, by the strange way in which the Polish version of the booklet is presented as a mirror image of the English version; in other words, if you leaf through the booklet from the start then halfway through, where the language changes, everything, including the remaining photographs, is upside down. It?s simply bizarre and I hope this method of presentation will not be repeated with future releases.
Up to now I?ve felt that Sir Colin Davis?s 1969 recording has fended off all subsequent challenges to retain its place as the first choice for this work. However, despite Sir Colin?s great wisdom and perceptiveness as a Berlioz interpreter I think it must now yield the palm. McCreesh?s interpretation is every bit as committed and inspired as Sir Colin?s. However, he has the edge in three crucial ways. Firstly, the instrumental sonorities are more intriguing and, surely, more authentic, even if this isn?t entirely a ?period? performance. Secondly, though Sir Colin?s chorus give him everything they?ve got, McCreesh?s choir is outstanding – and the overall standard of choral singing has, in any case, improved greatly over the last forty years. Finally, the recorded sound on this new release is superb and manages better than any I?ve previously heard to render Berlioz?s monumental vision susceptible to domestic listening. At last we have a recording that, in every respect, does full justice to the Grande Messe des Morts.
I believe the next scheduled oratorio release from this source will be Elijah, using the forces which Paul McCreesh directed at the 2011 Promenade Concerts. I can hardly wait.
The Telegraph, 15th October 2011
Classical CD of the Week
Conceived in 1837 on an immense scale worthy of one of Paris’s grands projets, Berlioz’s Grande Messe des Morts here receives an interpretation that is impressive not merely by dint of the music’s more monumental statements or its ample sonorities, but also through the subtlety of expressions that Paul McCreesh elicits from the massive forces required to perform it.
One only has to hear the quiet, contemplative restraint of the opening Requiem aeternam, the dying phrases and interweaving counterpoint of the Dies irae or the other-worldly Quid sum miser to appreciate that the Grande Messe des Morts reveals much about Berlioz’s heartfelt response to the Requiem text.
The Grande Messe was commissioned from Berlioz to mark the second anniversary of the death of General Mortier, who, while in the royal entourage at a military review, was killed in an attempted assassination of the French King Louis-Philippe in 1835. The premiere took place at Les Invalides in Paris, for which McCreesh here substitutes the spacious Gothic church of St Mary Magdalene in Wroclaw.
If we tend to associate McCreesh with the illuminating work he has done in the early music repertoire with his Gabrieli Consort and Players, his reach has been extending much further in recent years, and this Berlioz is a fine example of his sensibility and skill.
Why Wroclaw? The answer is that McCreesh is artistic director of the annual festival held there, and on this occasion he has mustered not only his Gabrieli musicians but also the Wroclaw Philharmonic Orchestra and Choir together with brass bands from Chetham’s School of Music. In a liner note, McCreesh calls it “a vast and almost impossible project”, but has brought it off with superb results.
The Times, 14th October 2011
For a classical artist landing a contract with a major record company was once considered a passport to heaven. Not any more. Rather like Satan, if for different reasons, artists get ejected from heaven. Or, more commonly, they eject themselves, after repeated failures to agree on projects and a polite agreement that their ways must part. The latest to parachute out is Paul McCreesh, maestro of the Gabrieli Consort and Players, whose lively and lavish reconstructions of early music spectaculars kept the Archiv label happy enough for 15 years.
Now, like John Eliot Gardiner before him, McCreesh has started his own label. The name is Winged Lion, though you have to hunt to locate it in this first release’s minimalist packaging. You won’t even find any track listing. The music presented couldn’t be less minimalist: it’s Berlioz’s Grande Messe des Morts of 1837, composed for vast orchestral and vocal forces.
Working from Wroclaw, in Poland, where he’s the artistic director of the Wratislava Cantans festival, McCreesh had to cut a few corners. But he still assembled 16 sets of timpani, 12 horns, four brass ensembles and a choir of 200, stacked high in the Mary Magdalene church, a Gothic edifice with a warm but woolly acoustic. The musicians are a mix of young and old, Polish and British.
Period instruments, of course; McCreesh is an “authentic” stickler. He’s even insisted on French pronunciation of the Latin text, something not apparent when words get lost in the clouds. The fruity brass is much more noticeable, and they run riot through the Dies Irae, as usual a rousing experience. Even so, I’d turn to this performance most for its gentler qualities: like the loveliness of the Worclaw Philharmonic Choir; or the quiet corners of the final sections, when rest eternal beckons and the instruments’ individual colours rise to the fore. Robert Murray, the tenor soloist, wafts down nicely from on high.
What would Berlioz make of it all? Probably not much: he wrote his music for great public buildings, not a pair of earphone or loudspeakers. But that won’t deter McCreesh. And I hope his recording team makes better friends with the Wroclaw acoustic – likely to be experienced again in subsequent Winged Lion spectaculars. The lion deserves to fly.
BBC Music Magazine, October 2011
Performance *****, Recording ****
Paul McCreesh and his Gabrieli Consort have a fine track record of large-scale Baroque choral works, so it’s surprising to find him opening his new label, Winged Lion, with the great monstre sacré of the Romantic repertoire. McCreesh provides pretty much the enormous forces Berlioz demands – 60 tenors at least – singing French Latin, as well as mostly original instruments (including ophicleides), leavened with Polish forces from his own Wratislavia Cantans festival. But he recognises that Berlioz sought more than mere noisy grandeur, and the results are fascinating.
McCreesh’s pace is fairly slow and weighty, but it seldom feels slack. In the reverberant acoustic of Mary Magdalene, Wrodaw, textures remain open. The Requiem and Kyrie are spacious and mournfully reflective, the Dies irae builds to a simply awesome ‘Tuba Mirum’, while the unaccompanied ‘Quaerens me’ displays a Renaissance-like transparency. With some choral specialists orchestral focus and detail may suffer, but the cor anglais and bassoon-lines in the ‘Quid sum miser’ are delicate, the ‘Lacrymosa’ robustly syncopated and even the weird flute and trombone lines in the ‘Hostias’ convince. In the Sanctus, tenor Robert Murray, set high up, sounds ethereal rather than heroic, in keeping with McCreesh’s style. Even those used to the Colin Davis or Charles Munch tradition may find its airy beauties compelling.
Editor’s Choice, Gramophone, November 2011
The word ‘ambitious’ doesn’t even come close to describing this inaugural release on Paul McCreesh’s Winged Lion label. The Berlioz Requiem is a gargantuan work, and while it does get its fair share of performances, most rely heavily on amateur performers, and so don’t reach the musical standards required of a commercial recording. But the number competent performers required is only one of McCreesh’s problems, as he has chosen to record the work in Poland, and on predominantly period instruments. All of these issues have bearing on the results, but on the whole his collaborative, international approach pays off handsomely.
For all the considerable merits of this recording, the benchmark Berlioz Requiem is still the Colin Davis/LSO version of 1969 (Philips 416 283-2). But the differences between the two readings are such that we are hardly comparing like with like. In fact, hearing McCreesh’s version puts the Davis interpretation in a whole new light. Davis achieves gravity in this music through steady and, on whole, slightly slower tempos. He also uses modern instruments, and has a smaller choir and a dryer acoustic (the recording was made in Westminster Cathedral). The cleanliness and clarity of the sound all work in Davis’ favour. But McCreesh is after something else. His choir is truly enormous, his orchestra mixes period and modern instruments (predominantly period instruments, but with the strings bolstered with modern instrument players) and, most significantly of all, the recording is made in the very resonant Mary Magdalene Church in Wroc!aw. He achieves a much more Gothic sound, more thundering in the Dies Irae, and more vulnerable in the quiet movements, especially the Quid sum miser and the Offertoire. Paul McCreesh talks in his liner note interview about the paradox in the work between its liturgical and operatic identities. By comparison with Davis’ very operatic reading, McCreesh has made an excellent job of reclaiming its liturgical side.
His tempos are surprisingly fluid, especially given the size of the forces he is coordinating. The drama in many of the movements, especially the Dies Irae, is significantly increased through subtly graded tempo changes. McCreesh is more faithful than Davis to Berlioz’ many articulation and dynamic markings. The orchestration and chord voicing in much of this music is very strange indeed, and McCreesh makes no effort to normalise or flatten out these anomalies. The results seem truer to the composer’s conception.
The sheer size of the forces here means that coordination is never going to be absolutely precise, and that is the main virtue that Davis has over McCreesh. It is a tricky balance with a work of this scale, you either have a choir big enough to shake the earth or one modest enough to maintain the intonation and ensemble you are after. And in a sense, the slight inaccuracies of the massed choral singing increase the sense of scale. Without actually having been there, the listener gets a better idea of the sheer size of the performing group from its occasionally approximate synchronisation. The tenors in the choir sometimes struggle with the higher notes, but again, when this happens it seems that Berlioz is deliberately stretching them for dramatic effect. On the other hand, the tenor soloist, Robert Murray, is ideal in the Sanctus. He gives a beautifully lyrical and French-sounding performance, briefly recapturing the operatic side of the work. There are some revelations in the orchestral playing that you’ll never get from modern instruments. The woody woodwind solos all have real character. The hybrid string section plays with minimal vibrato, but with sufficient power, especially at the lower end, to balance what is going on behind. But it is the brass and percussion that are truly revelatory. Narrow bore trombones can sound dreadful in the wrong hands, but here they sound just great, bringing real focus to the Tuba Mirum and a wonderful earthy quality to the pedals in the Hostias. The horns are often required to play stopped notes and various other constrained and muted sounds. The narrow bore instruments here achieve those effects far better than any modern instruments. And in the percussion, the small tinny cymbals add a fascinating colour, while the period timpani increases the percussive quality and reduces the resonance and fixed pitch of their sound. The packaging is unusual. The discs come in a shiny silver slip case, which when you turn it over gives the full info in Polish. It’s all very innovative, although I do have a few small grumbles. The two exterior faces are identical, so you are actually reading the text inside before you have worked out if it is the English or the Polish side you are looking at. When you have worked that out, there is no track listing on offer (Disc 2 begins at the Offertoire if you’re interested), and the catalogue number is only given on the underside of the discs. Hugh Macdonald’s liner note, informative as it is, is just a rehash of his preface to the 1978 Bärenreiter score.
Nevertheless, this release is a very promising start of Paul McCreesh’s new recording enterprise. As the many Mahler 8s that are appearing on the market at the moment demonstrate, it can be very difficult for a conductor to make his mark on a very large scale work. The practicalities of performance usually end up ironing out the interpretive individuality. But McCreesh has done something genuinely new and interesting with the Berlioz Requiem. If future releases on Winged Lion are as distinctive and accomplished as this, it promises to be one of the more worthwhile of the many own-label projects currently taking over the market.