Hector Berlioz liked to think outside the box. And outside the concert hall. The Grande symphonie funèbre et triomphale was his radical response to a government commission to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the July Revolution which had brought Louis-Philippe I to the throne. Berlioz wrote on a massive scale. Scored for a military band of 200 wind players, the symphonie accompanied a procession to the Place de la Bastille, where the remains of those who died fighting in 1830 were reinterred beneath a memorial column, the Colonne de Juillet, which had just been completed.

Simon Rattle and the London Symphony Orchestra outside St Paul's Cathedral
© LSO | Mark Allan

I’d like to think Berlioz would have enjoyed the spectacle of his Grande symphonie being performed by the London Symphony Orchestra in St Paul’s Cathedral. The composer himself experienced music-making on a supersized scale here. In 1851, he was bowled over by a Charity Children’s Concert which featured 6,500 children singing: “I have never seen or heard anything as moving in its immense grandeur than this gathering of poor children singing, arranged in a colossal amphitheatre,” he reported in the Feuilleton du journal des débats

The LSO, Guildhall School and Music Academy brass in the nave of St Paul's Cathedral
© LSO | Mark Allan

The forces under Sir Simon Rattle’s command were more modest than 6,500 – 80+ woodwind, brass and percussion players from the LSO, Guildhall School and Music Academy – but they certainly made a considerable noise. Initially, that noise was heard from outside the cathedral, the players performing a section of the Marche funèbre on the steps outside the west door. This was then repeated at the back of the nave, Rattle trying to keep his players, split across the north and south aisles, vaguely together. Sadly, there was to be no music on the move, the players eventually taking their places on the platform under the dome in silence. 

Simon Rattle conducts the LSO, Guildhall School and Music Academy musicians
© LSO | Graham Lacdao

For the full performance that concluded the concert, a gala fundraiser in aid of the LSO's Always Playing Appeal, the huge ensemble made a thrilling sound. Massed clarinets – 24 of them – swamped the stage, circled by other woodwinds and brass, flanked by percussion. Such vast numbers allied to the cavernous St Paul’s acoustic were never going to result in a performance of great clarity, but Rattle’s swift tempi clouded things more than necessary. The first movement, a vast Marche funèbre in sonata form, did not have much of a funereal tread. Peter Moore’s noble trombone solo preached eloquently in the Oraison funèbre before the closing Apothéose zipped along in a blaze of triumph, crowned by cymbal crashes and the tinkling of a Pavillon Chinois (or ‘Jingling Johnny’), all utterly bonkers but guaranteed to leave the audience grinning in delight. 

Peter Moore and the LSO
© LSO | Graham Lacdao

There was a heavy dose of Messiaen – another French rule-breaker – before then that put the St Paul’s organ in the spotlight. Simon Johnson played the Communion and Sortie from the Messe de la Pentecôte, conjuring avian twitterings and demented fairground rides, plus the astonishing Apparition de l'église éternelle where the decibels piled up gloriously to make the cathedral shudder. In between, the (comparatively reduced) orchestra performed Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum (And I await the resurrection of the dead) where the ritualistic winds formed huge chordal blocks in a ceremony bathed in chimes and gongs. At one point, principal oboe Juliana Koch took cover during a deafening tam-tam crescendo. Just as bonkers, in its way, as old Hector.

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