Even for a composer as naturally original as Hector Berlioz, the Grande messe des morts stands apart for its wild uniqueness. And any attempt to bring it to life in performance is bound to stand apart from the usual concert programme, starting with the sheer scale of the forces required. Well before the music started, the transformed Benaroya Hall concert stage – extended beyond its lip by several feet – made it clear that this evening with the Seattle Symphony was to be a special event.

© Brandon Patoc
© Brandon Patoc

Music director Ludovic Morlot had launched his mini-Berlioz festival the week before with Les nuits d'été (with Ian Bostridge, unusually, as the soloist, in a keenly expressive account) paired with a thoroughly gripping Symphonie fantastique. The anticipation was particularly intense for this second program, devoted solely to Berlioz's roughly 80-plus-minute setting of the Latin Requiem – if only because opportunities to encounter such a behemoth live are so rare.

In 1837, long before Mahler's titanic canvases, Berlioz scored his Requiem for an enormous complement of performers. Expanded to 109 orchestral players, the SSO was joined by 190 choristers (combined forces of the SSO Chorale prepared by Joseph Crnko, Karen P. Thomas's Seattle Pro Musica, and the young voices of Vocalpoint! Seattle).

But how unpredictably Berlioz deploys his musical army! Indeed, that sense of surprise was a recurrent theme of the performance. The special effects, originally conceived for the vastness of Paris' Les Invalides where the Requiem was first performed, were carefully prepared to make their full, thrilling impact. Morlot had brass bands positioned aloft at each of Benaroya's four corners to generate the  directional, "surround-sound" Berlioz requires in the Tuba mirum, while an entire row of the stage was occupied by a team of timpanists. The entrance of the bass drum was downright shattering; Mahler's "hammerstrokes" in the Sixth seem like mere sforzandi in comparison.

Berlioz's Requiem in Seattle © Brandon Patoc
Berlioz's Requiem in Seattle
© Brandon Patoc

Yet the high-decibel, apocalyptic flarings were not what lingered. The brass proclamations were at times too overpowering, which only brought attention to their relative paucity of musical substance. What made the deepest impression was the strange, at times quite spare, beauty of Berlioz's conception of the work as a whole. Morlot, who grew up close by the composer's childhood home and who was mentored in Berlioz interpretation by none other than Sir Colin Davis, fearlessly underscored what I can only call the weirdness of this music: its odd ruptures and splicings, peculiar rhythmic accents, deeply unsettling juxtapositions that would have given even Beethoven pause. What Berlioz does share with Beethoven – and Morlot seemed attuned to this – is in his obsessive reworking of an idea, like fingered prayer beads, until it yields some astonishingly unprecedented payoff. 

Berlioz treats the Latin liturgical text as an excuse for untrammeled free-association, going beyond word-painting to limn a through-composed drama that sounds planets removed from traditional sacred music. Where a similarly freethinking doubter, say, Verdi, seems for all that to contend directly with the cosmic questions raised by the Sequence, Berlioz suggests a kind of musical negative capability, interested less in the outcome than in following where his imagination leads him. This helps explain some of the counterintuitive choices of his setting – the lightness of the opening Dies irae rather than Sturm und Drang (though plenty of the latter is saved for later) – as well as the uncanny pacing of the opening "aeternam" and accompaniment to the Lacrymosa.

Here, in this grand governmental commission for a major public event, Berlioz infused his score with moments of almost unbearable intimacy. Morlot followed the composer along his bizarre byways and detours, but he also showed an appreciation for the uniquely architectural design of the Requiem: music sculpted into grand pillars and devotional side-chapels, with radiant clerestory, for example, in the Sanctus, which was graced by soloist Kenneth Tarver's luminous, focused tenor and sung from the choir loft. Long-limbed, consoling melodies that could be written by none other than Berlioz were allowed to breathe amid the outer pomp and fierce drama.

Notable contributions by the SSO were far too numerous to single out. Along with such expressive playing, it was a pleasure to hear the ensemble collectively focused on nuances of the orchestration itself, a key element of Berlioz's language, from the famous tincture of flutes against sepulchral trombones in the Hostias to the almost Schoenbergian chord colouring in the Agnus Dei.  

The combined choral forces were excellently prepared, making the a cappella Quaerens me a highlight and balancing clarity and exciting momentum in the Hosanna fugue. Berlioz's surprising choices continued to captivate right through to the eerie tranquillity of the final measures, as subdued as shaded candles guttering into endless night.