Last night in Davies Symphony Hall, conductor Charles Dutoit began his two-week visit to the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) with the first of three performances of Hector Berlioz’ Opus 5 setting of texts from the Requiem Mass. Astute readers will probably note the slightly evasive rhetoric of that last phrase. The score was written at the request, in 1837, of the Minister of the Interior in France, Adrien de Gasparin, to compose music in memory of the soldiers who died in the July Revolution of 1830, the “Three Glorious Days” that finally put an end to Bourbon rule, replacing Charles X with Louis Philippe, Duke of Orléans. This revolution is probably best known for Eugène Delacroix’ allegorical painting depicting Liberty leading French citizens over the bodies of fallen soldiers:
Liberty Leading the People, by Eugène Delacroix, from Wikimedia Commons (public domain)
So much for context.
By the time the music received its first performance on December 5, 1837 in the Chapel of Saint-Louis des Invalides in Paris, that context had changed. The soldiers being memorialized were those killed the previous October during the Siege of Constantine, a battle instrumental to the French conquest of Algeria. There does not appear to be any evidence that the Mass itself was celebrated on that occasion. This was strictly a concert occasion; and, as far as anyone connected with the Catholic Church was concerned, that was probably just as well.
Berlioz had scored the work for a very large ensemble that included eight trombones and four trumpets playing offstage. There were also four small brass choirs situated at the four points of the compass, thus taking the spatial experiences that Giovanni Gabrieli had conceived for St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice in the early seventeenth century and jacking them up with a serious jolt of steroids. As might be guessed, the choir was massive enough to match the instrumentation: 80 sopranos and altos (each), 60 tenors, and 70 basses. Ironically, there was only one vocal soloist, a tenor, who appears only for the relatively brief setting of the Sanctus text.
This context should make it clear that the first performance of Opus 5 was far from a liturgical experience, and it was unlikely that Berlioz ever intended it to be one. Indeed, he did a fair amount of cherry-picking in selecting the texts that he actually set; and there are any number of occasions that feel as if the words are there only as pegs on which he can hang his instrumental and choral effects. There are also extended passages of incantation that feel as if Berlioz just wants to move his resources on to the next significant moment worthy of more considered musical treatment; and the “Domine Jesu Christe” sounds as if the chorus is there only to accompany Berlioz’ elaborately developed fugue for the orchestra.
However, whatever the lapses may be, when Berlioz was on his game, the results are almost impressive enough to wipe away memories of the weaker moments. Most important is his ability to command the full scope of dynamic levels, rather than dwelling simply on unleashing all of the forces at his disposal. Some of the most breathtaking moments come when the chorus is singing a cappella. They may be oblivious to the semantic underpinnings of the words they are singing, but the music has a clearly defined expressive shape of its own.
The intensity of those soft passages only underscore the complementing intensity when Berlioz unleashes all of the resources at his disposal. If the “climax peaks” are measured by decibels alone, then the highest of them comes relatively early with the setting of the “Tuba mirum” verse from the “Dies irae” hymn. The brass comes at the listener from every direction; and the four timpanists beating the life out of their respective instruments are firmly underscored by the mother of all bass drum rolls. (Ironically, even though he has several percussionists playing them, Berlioz is impressively sparing in his writing for cymbals.)
Dutoit conducted all of this conveying the sense that he knew exactly what it was and how it should best be handled. His attention to dynamic levels and balances was always right on the money, so he knew how to make sure that the soft passages impressed as deeply as the loud ones. He guided the chorus through those passages in which Berlioz’ attention to the text seemed to lapse with a sure hand, allowing those phrases to pass by dutifully until the composer was back on track again. He also made sure that tenor Paul Groves had his own place in the sun, even if that moment was distinguished primarily by its minimality.
Most importantly, it seemed clear that every contributor to this experience was attentive to Dutoit’s control. One sensed this in the eyes of the members of the SFS Chorus (prepared by Director Ragnar Bohlin), whose resources were expanded when dynamic emphasis was required by both the Young Women’s Choral Projects of San Francisco (Susan McMane, Director) and the Golden Gate Men’s Chorus (Joseph Piazza, Director). Similar attentiveness to could be read in the faces of all of the instrumentalists (at least the ones whose faces were in view). Finally, while the Davies space definitely imposed constraints on how the spatial effects could be achieved, Dutoit consistently found effective techniques for making the available resources work, particularly when they involved the offstage trombones coming from behind the listeners.
The bottom line is that, whatever its flaws may be, Berlioz’ Opus 5 has no shortage of memorable moments; and Dutoit clearly knew how to make sure that those moments would be clearly etched into his listeners’ memories.