"If I were threatened by the destruction of my entire works save one, I should crave mercy for the Messe des morts."

Berlioz’s fondness for his own Requiem has never been a great secret. No one else could have fostered such a project, so excessive in every way. In spite of being a huge masterpiece with tremendous orchestration, this Grande Messe des morts was composed in only four weeks in 1836, in response to Adrien de Gasparin’s request, the French Secretary of State at the time. Its success in 1837 was as resounding as its orchestral structure, with no less than 10 movements for a 90-minute long-piece and 400 musicians gathered together for the occasion. Berlioz had actually scribbled on the score that "The number indicated is only relative. If space allows it, the chorus may be doubled or tripled and the orchestra may be proportionally increased."

Gustavo Dudamel © Tristram Kenton
Gustavo Dudamel
© Tristram Kenton

On January 22nd 2014, 1200 people entered the holy cathedral of Notre-Dame, ready to bear witness to a gigantic musical undertaking, live broadcasted on France Musique and ArteLive web channels, as well as on nouvOson in the brand new binaural format – allowing for spatialized sound.

The piece itself easily overcame the acoustic hostility of the large cathedral, especially with the four offstage brass bands placed throughout the hall. This was reinforced by the Choeur de Radio France and the Maîtrise de Notre-Dame which encompassed more than 160 singers and an impressive orchestra of 220 musicians from the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France and the Orchestra Simón Bolívar. The instruments represented were more numerous than usual: 8 bassoons (versus 3 in most of the other performances of this Requiem), 12 horns, 8 pairs of timpani (versus 2), 88 string instruments (equivalent to a complete symphonic orchestra), etc.

Under the lead of conductor Gustavo Dudamel whose brilliant career has already received a lot of media coverage, the interpretation could have easily fell into the pitfall of “over-performing”. He strived throughout the concert, however, to give music lovers a solemn and uncluttered version of this masterpiece, instead of a bright and triumphant interpretation often wrongly held as Berlioz’s intentions.

The musicians came on stage with a grave air, expressing both reverence and concentration. They were about to pay tribute to the piece itself, to the architectural and acoustic immensity of Notre-Dame, and to Claudio Abbado, deceased two days before, who had been a mentor for Dudamel and his Venezuelian orchestra.

From the Introit, the meticulously-proportioned gigantic ensemble was but one body. The timbres of the English horns and the hoboes were right on pitch, proving Olivier Messiaen right in his belief that “Berlioz, the first, had understood the roles of the timbre and of the specific timbre.”

Dudamel, who had set his baton aside only to conduct with his slightly trembling hands, mastered the holy place and its forever-resounding vault. All along the Dies Irae, the choruses succeeded in respecting the demands of the composer and his era, with a flexibility in the voice and a “French” pronunciation of the Latin. The sound of the brass coming from all over the hall during the Tuba mirum filled every inch of space, and the audience was more than appreciative. All the singers and musicians ended the Sequence with a fast-paced but raging Lacrimosa. Yet, this last dramatic expression of the piece remained full of reserve. Dudamel maintained a similar mood in the Offertoire where he perfectly balanced the psalmody of the voices and the orchestral fugue, in a risky but successful vertical interpretation.

Tenor Andrej Dunaev’s unavailability was barely noticed. He was replaced by the young British soloist Andrew Staples who was measured and showed great restraint during the Sanctus. Singing from the head as Berlioz wanted; he perfectly combined accuracy and evanescence in the high-pitched notes. The bright female choir echoed the lyric atmosphere and gave a unique moment of emotion.

After the last notes of the Communion were played by the strings and the winds, an elegiac silence froze the audience. The solemn conductor Dudamel seemed to seize it and made it last a few seconds more. Under his slightly trembling hands the whole Requiem was ringing out in an infinite echo to this majestic tribute.

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