BBC Prom 39: Berlioz

BBC National Orchestra of Wales/Thierry Fischer

Royal Albert Hall, 12 August 2012 4.5 stars

Thierry FischerBerlioz’s 1837 Requiem is not for the musically faint-hearted. With its massive battery of percussion – in this performance at least 16 timpani were visible to the naked eye – and several pit bands’ worth of brass, not to mention a chorus numbering well into three figures, the piece fully lives up to its period’s most monumental tendencies. It’s not only roof-raisingly noisy but a sight to behold.

Small surprise, then, that Thierry Fischer’s farewell outing as Principal Conductor of BBCNOW saw him reduced at times to extreme traffic management. With huge, business-like gestures that wouldn’t have been out of place on the Heathrow tarmac, this wasn’t his most subtle conducting; but it was certainly effective. The massed ranks of musicians held fast through the complexities of Berlioz’s score, and the reverberating cavern of the RAH produced a performance whose sheer power was undeniable.

Most impressive was the chorus, whose rounded tone and acoustic-beating diction barely gave away its source in three separate choral societies. The loud passages were, predictably, the most confident. But it wasn’t just a case of safety in numbers: the unaccompanied Quaerens me featured a reduced choir whose sudden fragility only added to the movement’s (much-needed) gentleness. A similar delicate touch might also have come in the Sanctus’s notoriously high and exposed tenor solo; but, alas, Toby Spence sounded strained and far from his best.

In the end, though, the Requiem’s biggest problem is its need for moments of pause. Berlioz’s famous harmonic adventurousness (some passages sound even now like musical non sequiturs) often combines oddly with such an enormous, kitchenware-heavy orchestra. For those who like their brass, well, brassy, it doesn’t get much better than this. But for everyone else the noisiness – however highly polished – can get more than a bit relentless in 90-minute doses.        

Fischer and the BBCNOW grasped any opportunity to inject light relief, pushing the deliciously off-kilter Lacrimosa so far that it almost seemed tongue-in-cheek. Elsewhere respite was occasionally provided by magic touches of orchestral detail: violins playing suddenly without vibrato; beautifully-turned wind solos emerging poignantly from their gigantic backdrop; the cymbal death-rattles in the Sanctus realised with terrifying clarity.

The Berlioz Requiem will never be to everyone’s taste. But it’s difficult to imagine a more persuasive performance than this, delivered in true, bombastic nineteenth-century style and in a venue where such ‘monster’ events seem entirely at home.    

By Flora Willson