Remembrance Sunday in the Royal Albert Hall closed on a rain not of poppies but of fire. Berlioz’s Mass for the Dead thundered forth and the silence of the Cenotaph was swept away by the mightiest howl of anguish in music.

Some find vulgarity in the Grande Messe des morts, perhaps understandably given its gargantuan choral forces, choirs of farting brass and ten-strong battery of timpanists, but attentive listening gives the lie to that dismissive assessment. Yes, the Tuba mirum is a stereo spectacular; but surely the exultant text it illustrates, “The trumpet, sounding wondrous blasts”, demands elation, not gloom.

François-Xavier Roth and the BBCSO © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
François-Xavier Roth and the BBCSO
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

Aside from that one movement, the battalions are used for texture, not triumphalism, from the plaintive cor anglais at Quid sum miser to the hushed, unaccompanied Andante sostenuto of Quaerens me.

François-Xavier Roth was in London without his period band, Les Siècles, but with his usual determination to create a performance the composer would have recognised. He stripped away the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s plushness and let air into the mix – often with startling results. In the Offertorium, for example, the massed woodwind line emerged with the sweetness and clarity of a chamber organ.

The Paris-born conductor’s insistence on Latin pronunciation à la française (as specified in 18th-century Gallic grammars) altered perception of the text, as at the word sanctus in which a nasal first syllable gave way to a familiar French “tu” sound on the second. Archaic though it was, his decision seemed somehow to tip the ear out of the cathedral and into the living world.

What Roth could not recreate was the acoustic for which the Requiem was composed, that of the Église des Invalides in Paris (not to be confused with the sepulchral Dôme beloved of tourists). The Royal Albert Hall served him well, its vast acreage allowing the music’s colours and dynamic extremes to swirl with seductive resonance. However, it came at a price. The London Philharmonic Choir and the  BBC Symphony and Crouch End Festival Choruses, an admirable assembly of London talent, projected the music with power and passion, but not always the words. The basses were occluded in the Dies irae at Quantus tremor est futurus, the tenors flabby of diction in the Lacrimosa. Even the sopranos, whose tuning and attack throughout the performance were impeccable, struggled in places to get the text across.

Toby Spence © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Toby Spence
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

No such reservations applied to Toby Spence, a late stand-in for the indisposed German tenor Maximilian Schmitt, who sang the Sanctus from the organ console and sent it ringing through the auditorium with an heroically full timbre and barely a hint of strain.

As for Roth’s interpretation, it was (if such a word is tolerable in this context) imperious. He stirred the cauldron with attentive care yet never held back on the big guns. Once or twice he over-emphasised the fragmentary nature of Berlioz’s instrumental phrasing – those characteristic motifs that sound briefly then fall away, unresolved and unfulfilled – but there was little else with which to take issue.

While the music of the Messe can meander in places (a fault Berlioz subsequently corrected with its “little brother” the Te Deum, a shorter, tighter and more melodically incisive work), in a performance as cogent as this its cumulative impact is immense.