No one can accuse Hector Berlioz of shying away from grandeur in his Grande Messe des morts. The piece is scored for a gargantuan orchestra – quadruple winds and a whole forest of strings – to which is added an enormous chorus, as well as four brass choirs scattered around the stage and hall, totalling almost 40 players alone. Opening the Bergen International Festival, the explosions of sound from a massively expanded Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus resounded through Bergen’s Grieg Hall, but it was the immersive, quiet sections conjured up by conductor Edward Gardner that made the performance special.

Ed Gardner © Thor Brødreskift
Ed Gardner
© Thor Brødreskift

The first movement Requiem aeternam took a little while to find its footing. Although the first orchestral entries – burnished strings rising out of nothing, soon joined by winds – were captivatingly intense, the first choral entries were slightly uncertain, each voice entering at the top of their range. There was a lack of line throughout the first movement, climaxes appearing almost randomly and unpreparedly, and the chorus struggled at first to keep intonation in check.

Things had luckily stabilised by the second movement Dies irae. Berlioz conjures up a particularly stunning evocation of the Last Judgement in his Requiem, something this performance clearly tried to enhance: as the orchestra was gearing up to the monumental Tuba mirum section, the chorus moved up to the front of the stage. Accompanied by surround-sound brass choirs and a staggering ten sets of timpani, the chorus sang of the trumpet blast that will resurrect the dead directly in front of the audience, with no orchestra in between. With a couple of exceptions, they all sang without scores, and with that were able to really communicate the text. Still, the effect was perhaps not quite as powerful as one might have hoped: it might seem overly critical to complain that a chorus of well over 100 was too little, but with a piece of such vast proportions as the Grande Messe, more sound was needed from the chorus, especially when standing so close to the audience.

Moving the chorus to the front also meant that they had to move back at some point. After the third movement, a delicately sung and played Quid sum miser, the entire chorus moved back while the orchestra tuned once more. Correct tuning is important, but it created a regrettable lull in the proceedings. Still, the little breather might have done everyone well, because the ensuing Rex tremendae was played with impressive alertness, the grandiosity of the opening turning into palpable, edge-of-your-seat excitement as Gardner suddenly cranked up the tempo.

Even though the chorus were rather overpowered in the very strongest parts of the piece, they sang with an impressively beautiful, even sound in the softer sections. The a capella sixth movement Quaerens me was beautifully transparent, the intertwining lines always discernible. The chorus in the Grande Messe is curiously enough written in six parts – two each of sopranos, tenors and basses – and throughout the piece, the altos kept doubling the first tenor line at particularly daunting spots. It might sound like cheating at choir, but the inclusion of the low female voices lent a very nice roundness to a part that can easily turn into a shouting match.

The chorus © Thor Brødreskift
The chorus
© Thor Brødreskift

For whatever reason, Berlioz included in the ninth movement Sanctus a tenor solo, accompanied by strings, flutes and hushed female chorus. Soloist Bror Magnus Tødenes got through the vertiginous solo in one piece, but his singing – although beautiful and remarkably unforced – lacked the required lightness. His Italianate tenor would probably have sounded more at home singing Puccini. The soprano interjections, on the other hand, were sung with a remarkably concentrated sound, almost vibrating with intensity. The two tenor solos were both followed by jubilant choral fugues on “Hosanna in excelsis”, although by the first fugue, the chorus sounded like they were starting to tire – perhaps not surprising given the sheer size and scope of the choral parts. Eventually, the choral sound homogenised, but by the final stretch, the music was lacking in direction; it all merely sounded nice and plush and reasonably loud, the orchestra seemingly just playing notes and the chorus just singing syllables.

Both the orchestra and the chorus seemed to start the last movement Agnus Dei with renewed energy. With the finish line in sight, they played the movement with breathtaking intensity, the recollections of previous music rolling past, before ending with music of immense silence. Never mind the deafening brass fanfares heard in movements previous – what makes this piece so remarkable is just how little sound that many people can make together.

****1