To mark the 150th anniversary of Berlioz’s death last Friday, the Philharmonia Orchestra and Chorus and London Philharmonic Choir performed his Grande Messe des Morts, or Requiem, under the American conductor John Nelson, in St Paul’s Cathedral. An outstanding Berliozian, with a most distinguished discography to his credit, Nelson offered a noble if austere interpretation, finely negotiating the work’s extremes of dynamics and sonority, and mindful throughout of the crucial integration of devotion and drama.
His measured speeds allowed the music to unfold with slow yet relentless intensity and gravitas. Though we tend think of the Grande Messe primarily in terms of Berlioz’s terrifying spatial deployment of multiple brass bands, it’s the string and woodwind writing that provides the pervasive sombreness of mood, and here their dark textures offset choral singing of great richness, fervour and poise, particularly in the unaccompanied Quarens Me and the reflective Offertorium. Michael Spyres, meanwhile, was the tenor soloist in the Sanctus, his voice ascending heavenwards with astonishing ease and beauty of tone.
Yet any performance in St Paul’s is inevitably affected by the cathedral’s notorious acoustics, and Nelson was both helped and hampered by the massive reverberation. The Dies Irae sounded truly awesome, but the counterpoint and complex rhythms of the Lacrimosa vanished into a kind of aural fog that undermined its impact. What really hit home, though, were those moments of uneasy calm such as the Quid Sum Miser and Hostias, when the cataclysms have died away and all that remains is the sound of voices and instruments calling to one another across a numbed void that stretches into infinity.