Berlioz's Requiem was commissioned for the 1837 funeral service in Les Invalides for soldiers recently killed in Algeria. But this occasion in St. Pauls’ Cathedral was to commemorate the composer himself, 150 years to the day since he died. The work is one for which it is impossible to avoid lists. There is that very large orchestra, including such seeming excrescences as 12 horns and 16 timpani, four tam-tams, ten pairs of cymbals – and four extra brass choirs at the corners of the performing space: around 200 singers but only in three (or six) parts, since Berlioz gives the same music to sopranos and mezzos, apart from a few of the highest notes. But these features are not what make the Requiem so original, as they were the common coin of the ceremonies of revolutionary Paris, from the likes of Le Sueur, Berlioz’s teacher. It is the way Berlioz uses them that is special. In particular he understood that broad gestures and slow harmonic progression are needed, and that the largest forces should be deployed sparingly, at moments when they best suit the drama of the text.

Berlioz's Requiem at St Paul's Cathedral
© Martin Kendrick

In the Requiem aeternam Berlioz begins quietly enough and delineates the spatial element at the start, with pauses, sensitively timed by John Nelson to let the sound reverberate – a big choral group singing very softly in such a space is itself quite an aural spectacle. Two choirs, the Philharmonia Chorus and the London Philharmonic Choir, came together to provide the size of group the composer regarded as his minimum. This permits the rare experience in London of a choir with enough good tenors, as they pleaded – “Exaudi orationem meam” – for their prayer to be heard. Then after the shuddering invocation of the Dies irae, Nelson built inexorably towards the entry of those extra brass groups for the Tuba mirum. The last trump blazed as the great E flat summons from the beyond sounded in the brass, mighty and implacable, then joined by all those drums and gongs.

Thomas Mann once referred to the Prelude to Wagner’s Rheingold (also in E flat) as “an acoustic idea” rather than music. Such an acoustic event, as with Berlioz’s Tuba mirum, is felt as much as heard, and has symbolic meaning – in the German the beginning of all things, in the Frenchman their end. The vocal contributions rang out superbly – the splendid basses in unison at the top of their range, the whole choir in canon for the Last Judgement (Judex ergo). The other contributor was Sir Christopher Wren’s great building, which after all possess soaring lines and imposing dimensions like the score, and like the Requiem is designed to inspire awe rather than gentle piety. Berlioz even called the Requiem one of his “architectural works”. Its long reverberation period needs careful management by the conductor, which was here splendidly accomplished.

With the Quid sum miser we returned to smaller forces, lower-pitched ones, an entreaty from a male (TTB) chorus in unison, with the Philharmonia Orchestra’s fine cor anglais and bassoon players colouring the quest for heavenly advocacy. The quiet a cappella Quaerens me was also touching in its simplicity. With the Lacrimosa there were some acoustical challenges, since the power and excitement of its surging 9/8 sent as each choral line made its way to the roof of the dome 111 metres above the floor, it encountered its predecessors coming down again, over and over. Add the returning extra brass and percussion into the mix and you risk, as Stalin said of Shostakovich, “muddle instead of music”. The effect would depend on where you sat no doubt, but even if some detail was swallowed, the effect came through – which in this glorious movement still makes quite an impact.

The Hostias is again for male voices, with another of those acoustic ideas, heaven severed from earth in the chords for four flutes on high, vying with eight trombones swelling and receding on their lowest pedal notes. The effect in the cathedral acoustic was as aurally dramatic as anything in the performance. The tenor in the Sanctus was Michael Spyres no less, singing from the pulpit. His long lyrical line was outstanding, his tone ardent and ringing, eschewing the French haute-contre style and using a powerful chest voice for the highest notes, as Gilbert Duprez might have done at the premiere. The women's voices echoed his music exquisitely, while the solo repeat with the addition of pianissimo cymbals and bass drum was not the least of Berlioz’s acoustic ideas. The Agnus Dei with its recapitulation of earlier material and its retreating funeral march on the drums, made for a cathartic close. This great tragic drama, which led Heine to dub Berlioz “a lark the size of an eagle”, was a sublime memorial to one of France’s greatest sons.