Classical Music Review: The Berlioz Requiem Opens Tanglewood In Style

While these dramatic sections constitute the more celebrated musical attributes of Berlioz’s furious conception of Judgment Day, it is actually in the quieter, mostly contemplative sections that the writing generates a just as impressive visionary reflectiveness.

Requiem by Hector Berlioz. Presented by the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Tanglewood Festival Choir. Conducted by Charles Dutoit. At Tanglewood.

By Ron Barnell

Soloist Russell Thomas, Tanglewood Festival Chorus Director John Oliver, and conductor Charles Dutoit acknowledge the applause after the performance of the Berlioz: Requiem at Tanglewood. Photo: Ron Barnell

Among the several famous requiem masses written by composers in the 19th century, the issue of religious significance has often been a matter of debate. Verdi’s The Messa da Requiem appears to ground its spiritual appeal to an almost operatic outreach to the Deity. French composer Hector Berlioz wrote his Grand Messe des Mortes in 1837 for a performance in the Church of the Invalides in Paris, ostensibly for the memory of a fallen French general. But this occasion merely provided the required epic spatial setting for what Berlioz’s fevered mind had conceived of years before—a grand, apocalyptic drama of the “Last Trump” that would utilize the full resources of the orchestra and choir.

Berlioz’s fury and flash were fomented aplenty this past weekend at Tanglewood, when the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the Tanglewood Festival Choir, and soloist Russell Thomas performed Berlioz’s Requiem under the baton of conductor Charles Dutoit.

Adding to the forces of choir and orchestra were four brass bands strategically placed located to the far left and right of the interior of the Koussevitzky Music Shed. Mostly engaged for the dramatic fanfares during the “Dies Irae,” reinforcing the massive timpani battery on stage, they also were heard to great effect during the energetic “Lacrymosa” section. Even under the best of concert-hall performances settings, the co-ordination of the offstage brass ensemble entrances with the main orchestra and chorus on stage are problematic. In the shed, separated as they were, the initial entrances of the bands had a rather rubbery feel to them, until Dutoit nailed down a tempo that unified the two ensembles, on and off stage. The “Lacrymosa” filled the space with sonic fervor.

While these dramatic sections constitute the more celebrated musical attributes of Berlioz’s furious conception of Judgment Day, it is actually in the quieter, mostly contemplative sections that the writing generates a just as impressive, visionary reflectiveness. Here the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, under their masterful director, John Oliver, once again proved they are among the best prepared choruses in the business today.

Choral sections sung a capella, such as in the “Quid sum miser, or Quaerens me,” with its quasi-spoken effects, were breathtaking, as was the “Hostias,” which the solo men ‘s chorus gave an eerie feel, helped by the accompanying widely spaced chordal sequences for three flutes and eight very low trombones playing together.

The “Sanctus” suffered because of the crowded stage, which necessitating the placement of tenor soloist Russell Thomas to the very far right, where I felt that the projection of his vocal lines came off under-powered, fading out in the vast interior space of the shed.

The work ends with the “Agnus Dei,” with its fluttering of angels wings in the 10 pairs of cymbals struck simultaneously, and 10 timpani players invoking a solemn rhythmic march. The final “Amen,” as intoned by the chorus with the rising and falling of the strings underneath, has got to be among the most achingly beautiful musical passages in existence. A few final soft timpani strokes . . . silence . . .

A few words about conductor Charles Dutoit and what he brought to this performance of the Requiem. Not only a love for Berlioz’s music (I heard him do an astonishing performance of the rarely heard Te Deum in Philadelphia several years ago) but a history with the Boston Symphony Orchestra that stretches back to the late 1950’s, when he himself was a conducting student at Tanglewood under former BSO Director, Charles Munch, himself a master of the music of Berlioz. Thus Dutoit learned his Berlioz from the best teacher possible, one who shaped the orchestra over several years into a top-notch ensemble.

While the Boston Symphony is now on an active search for a replacement for Music Director James Levine, it is a real shame that Dutoit’s present engagements would (apparently) not allow him to sit in as even an interim replacement. (He is entering the final year of his Philadelphia Orchestra contract.) His involvement would be a reassuring sign of continuity with a legacy that has made the Boston Symphony one of the greatest American orchestras.

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