It might be clichéd to describe Berlioz’ 1837 Requiem (pointedly titled Grand Messe des morts) as monumental. It would be hard, however, to think of any other word so apt for a work whose performance required three different choruses atop an orchestra so large that it was already straining the limits of the Müpa’s stage. Before Wagnerian grandeur with its own earth-shaking, ear-splitting tempest of brass and vocal monumentality, there was, as this performance made very clear, Hector Berlioz.

The Hungarian NPO, Honvéd Male Choir, Hungarian Radio and Hungarian National Choirs
© János Posztós, Müpa Budapest

Originally commissioned by the French Ministry of the Interior to commemorate the victims of the 1830 July Revolution, then repurposed as a memorial for the recently slain General Damrémont and the soldiers fallen at the Siege of Constantine, Berlioz’ Grand Messe saw its triumphant premiere at Les Invalides on 5th December 1837. Indeed, it’s hard to listen to it now not thinking about how Berlioz must have crafted the music to fill out the great space of the Dôme des Invalides. Characterised by an overwhelming intensity that rarely lets the listener breathe, the work is less of a pious commemoration of the dead, and more a glorious exercise in building a vast sonic edifice. Masterful in its use of dramatic vocal and instrumental colour, it seems to want to go pointedly against textual and musical expectations and traditions in more than just its title: the Dies irae builds to its climax from a quiet and haunting start, while the Lacrimosa is grandiose and forceful. There is only one soloist, appearing for a single movement, the rest of the vocal performance being handled by the gigantic choir.

Howard Williams
© János Posztós, Müpa Budapest

Under the baton of Howard Williams, the combined forces of the Hungarian National Philharmonic Orchestra, the Hungarian National Choir, the Hungarian Radio Choir, and the Honvéd Male Choir rose admirably to the challenge of tackling Berlioz’ behemoth. Beside the jagged, angular beginning of the opening movement, Williams impressed with his sure-handed, secure leadership, delivering a precise, stirring rendering of the score. Crucially, he managed to keep orchestra and chorus in their precarious balance: other than towards the end of Lacrimosa, where the orchestra became overpowering, neither force overwhelmed the other, a considerable feat given the size and regular volume of the various participants. The enlarged brass section, placed around the concert hall in fours, deserves high praise for their visceral, powerful performance through the evening; the opening of Tuba mirum was nothing sort of soul-shaking. The rest of the HNPO was equally worthy of applause, bringing the complex texture of Berlioz’ score vividly to life: the evocatively eerie, dark tones of the cellos during Dies irae were a memorable highlight, as well as the glowing, open warmth of the strings during the Offertorium.

The Hungarian National Philharmonic Orchestra brass
© János Posztós, Müpa Budapest

But the joined forces of the three choirs must be hailed as the stars of the evening, performing the work with utter commitment to its dramatic intensity (marred by only slight diction issues). From the haunting chants of the basses in the Kyrie through the moving Ingemisco and the solemn Hostias (a short but resplendent section for the men’s choir), to the ethereal Sanctus, the choral performances were nothing short of ravishing, giving full voice to the grand Romantic beauty and terror of Berlioz’ work. Crowned by a crystal-toned, lyrical rendering of the Sanctus by tenor Andrew Staples, this rare Hungarian performance made for a remarkable presentation of Berlioz’ grand opus.

****1