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Reviews: Berlioz: Requiem - Sir Colin Davis

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Reviews: 6

Site review by Castor August 6, 2008
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Site review by Polly Nomial October 6, 2008
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Review by gonzostick July 31, 2008 (16 of 19 found this review helpful)
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I own all the surround versions of this music in SACD and DVD-audio formats. Much as I like the Norrington on SACD, this one is the best, musically. The original LPs and RBCD issues, while good, did not do justice to what the Philips engineers had captured on their master tapes at Westminster Cathedral in November of 1969. The Spano on Telarc, while good, is way too polite for the fire and brimstone this work really needs. His also lacks the acoustics this work needs to envelop the listener, not to mention Spano is tame, when compared to Davis. Davis can be completely sweet and lyrical, then suddenly ferocious, while always succeeding in maintaining the long lines of musical argument.

This is wonderful. Colin Davis has made a specialty of this work for many, many years. The best thing about the wrap-around sound of this disc is that it reproduces the sound of this amazing piece in an acoustic that does it justice. No, it does NOT have Telarc-size bass! The perspective is more distant, but it captures the sound of inspired performers making impassioned music and responding to the work AND the acoustics of the space in which they are performing the work. The tempos are unfailingly musical, while never dragging, and the performance works on all levels. The acoustics, though not mentioned in the Pentatone booklet, are those of Westminster Cathedral, according to the Matthew B. Tepper Internet site which lists all of the recordings of the work.

The performance is subtle but has great ferocity when needed in the big moments. When the men push to sing through the barrage of percussion and brass in the Tuba Mirum, they cut loose with wonderful energy that is quite hair-raising. As the other sections of the choir join in, they respond with the same level of energy and purpose. The engineers resist the temptation to change the dynamics of the work, so the dynamic range of the piece is pretty much on the tapes as transferred. The Lacrymosa manages to have both rhythmic precision AND long, singing lines, with amazing bite when needed. The counterpoint of the orchestral accompaniment and the syncopations are pointed and really well-proportioned, so the rhythm just blooms around the superb choral work.

The recording is 4.0 surround. The best way to hear it is with matching, full-range speakers around the listening area. The bass response has NOT been ticked up. It sounds like huge forces in a huge building, enveloping the listener in waves of sound. There is plenty of clarity for the smaller moments, but the building sings right along with the Godly racket when the full forces are unleashed.

This classic recording has been brought back in the format that finally does it justice. Do not buy this unless you intend to open it wide on the system and let it roll through the house!

If you love this piece, as I do, and you want to hear one of the great recordings of this work in the best format to ever do it justice, this release is self-recommending!

GET THIS and SUPPORT PENTATONE Classics! BRAVO to all concerned, in 1969 AND 2008!!! PLEASE, PentaTone, give us more of the Davis recordings from Philips in Boston, especially the COMPLETE Sibelius with that great, gleaming Boston Symphony Orchestra!!!

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Review by Oakland December 22, 2008 (8 of 10 found this review helpful)
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Let me show my cards early. I just read what I have just written about the Davis/Berlioz Requiem and it may seem that I've fawned over this recording to a syrupy excess. Well, I'm guilty as charged. I am more excited about the Davis/Berlioz “Requiem” than I have been about any SACD in recent memory and that includes my previous “most excited about disc” the Fischer Mahler 2nd (/showreviews/3997#4215 ). And the Requiem is not a cutting edge DSD recording. This is a decidedly “low tech” analog recording, much disparaged “quad” no less, recorded in 1969. Nevertheless, this recording represents, to me, a coming together of a hall of fame performance and an excellent recording, a paring not seen often enough on SACD (or any format really). I gotta tell you that this release is a must have, lacking almost nothing in performance and for sound lacking only some aspects of the lowest registers (but not lacking at all in other aspects of the low registers----puzzling) and the last nth degree of resolution at the loudest passages.

I believe that in all respects that most matter the Davis/Berlioz “Requiem” recording of *the* monument of choral/orchestral compositions may be the only one you *really* need. It is not that others are not worthy. Along with the Davis “Requiem” SACD I have also been listening to some of recordings I own (including LPs [Sir Colin Davis and Maazel] and CD [Telarc/Shaw], and 3 SACDs) and I must say that all but bring some goodies to the table. Not one recording does it all. But if I had to choose but one the Sir Colin Berlioz “Requiem” SACD would clearly be it.

For me the first three minutes of the first movement, “Requiem-Kyrie”, is what establishes the ethos of this monumental work. This is a leading “indicator” whether the performance is going to be special or run of the mill. The sequence begins with plaintive rising strings (with horns), a brief anticipatory pause (for lack of a better description), followed again by rising strings, which leads to the initial entry of the chorus which portends the drama to be experienced later in the performance. Davis guides the orchestra and chorus through this opening sequence in a most reassuring way.

Of course, an illustrious execution of the four brass choirs in the Tuba mirum is compulsory for any performance of the Requiem to be a contender. The brass choirs serves to give a performance its mark of authenticity. Different performances take varying degrees of creative license (especially with placement in multi-channel) with the brass choirs to portray Judgment Day. It is my understanding that Berlioz specified that the brass choirs be deployed at “4 corners of the *orchestra*”, although some conductors deploy them in “4 corners of the *hall*. And most of the recordings I have do a credible job where ever they are placed even if they come up short elsewhere. Davis seems to lean toward the former, more purist, deployment which, depending how you look at it, may not make the most of modern technology. Thus, brass choir location, in the Davis recording, while clearly identified with respect to placement are not presented in a pinpoint way when compared to “modern” multi-channel recordings that I have.

But no recording that I have portrays the Tuba mirum with the mastery of Davis. Here timing is everything, lest the fanfare sounds “unrehearsed” or out of step, screwing up the whole effect. The brass choirs come in one at a time from the 4 locations and the precision of Davis coupled with the musicianship and verve of the performers is unmatched in my experience. This is performed with utmost panache but all the while preserving the liturgical dignity of the music which I believe some recordings violate.

But its not just the brass choirs, per se, that defines this movement. It is what follows in this movement that separates Davis from the rest, in my opinion. Davis displays a punctilious timing with the entry of the vocal choir followed by the basses performing the fanfare and then onto the full chorus that is not fulfilled to this level in other recordings.

I will not comment movement by movement except to say that the mastery of Davis is at the highest level, without let down, throughout the 91 minute performance.

The recording, while not up to the level of the performance, is also very good indeed. The most distinctive attribute of the Berlioz Requiem is the melodious composition for voices. And this Pentatone SACD captures a stunning performance in a way that ranks with the best in my experience. (Never mind that some of the voices were "voluntary" or unpaid). The enunciation of the choirs is captured with sunlit clarity, especially the higher octave voices. The men's voices, too, are captured with stunning clarity. Although the men's voices don't have the rich testosterone quality found in the two Telarc recordings (Shaw/Atlantic CD and the Spano/Atlanta SACD).

While the voices soar to angelic heights throughout, most notably during the Tuba mirum and Lacrymosa, at times, there is some give back of resolution at the most demanding passages, where I detect some loss of composure not found in other SACDs I have such as Spano and and even the 1959 Munch or the Shaw CD. Likewise, orchestral passages fall a tad bit short of perfection at speed.

The low end of the Davis Requiem is a study of two distinct contrasts. For the most part the bass is quite good. But while the bass is never quite “incomplete”, it is at times “wanting”. The recording nails the low strings and the low brass throughout. For example, the bass strings are superb in “Domine Jesu Christe”, especially when juxtaposed opposite the sweetness of the angelic violins and flutes and subdued choirs. Likewise, the lower register brass of the “Hostias” is quite satisfying.

On the other hand, the timpani nor the bass drum extend as deep as the low strings, with the resulting loss of ultimate impact. The 1959 Munch recording has a meaner bass drum as witnessed at the conclusion of the majestic Lacrymosa spectacle. It appears that the engineers were walking a fine line of balance where they attenuated the lowest octave to preserve the loudest orchestral and choral passages. Thus greater extension of the bass drum is sacrificed and the recording does not have the weight of realism of the Telarcs, for example. But make no mistake the respective, tone, timbre and pitch are completely preserved and the battalion of timpani with bass drum make a *grand* statement, particularly in multi-channel.

I know some find the tenor (“Sanctus” only) a bit “whiny”. Personally, I find some even acclaimed tenors to be a bit shrill for my tastes. [Give me bass men: Barry White or Issac Hayes :)]. However, I do find that the tenor here, Ronald Dowd, competes at least favorably with the others I have heard on the merits of performance. But with respect to the “recording” of the tenor I find the Spano/Telarc to be airily ethereal with a matchless celestial quality.

For reasons of performance but also for sound quality there is no question that the Davis Berlioz “Requiem” is a must have for all listeners that enjoy this music. For sure, it is the performance that has defined this release as a standard the past 35 years. But with this disc the performance is not the whole story because I don't recall any recording in recent memory for which the multi-channel mix so vividly illustrates the SACD formats raison d'etre, especially when compared side-by-side to its two-channel counter part or also, in this case, to the LP (to which the SACD compares favorably).

So why is this the case? Obviously, the triumphant performance is identical. So, that's a non factor in comparing the two channel to the multi-channel. Also, the stunning clarity and enunciation of the choruses, long a hallmark (for me) of this recording, is duplicated by the two-channel SACD program. The bass clarity and impact are improved with the multi-channel in a way that is audible but maybe not substantially so. The tape hiss/background noise, too, is substantially unchanged and may even be a tad more pronounced on the multi-channel, but not enough to make an acute difference. The dynamic range is certainly improved with the multi-channel but not so much to be the “deal breaker”. Of course, the back to front depth and height of the multi-channel yields marked improvement, but as important as that is that virtue is not what makes it so much more improved. So while there are tangible, easily identifiable improvements, which by themselves make the multi-channel a superior recording, these individually specific improvements are not, by themselves, profound when compared to the two-channel. So why is the multi-channel program of the Davis Requiem so much more compelling, a game changer, better able to portray the grandeur of the music, almost a complete recast, more so than with most other two-channel/multi-channel counterparts?

Simply put the multi-channel ability to convey a truthful portrayal of the *space* is what separates it so definitively from the two-channel counterpart. A faithful recreation of the spatial characteristics in the cavernous setting of the Westminster Cathedral (not to be confused with the Westminster Abbey which is up the street) is a colossal challenge for engineers who need all the help they can get in this venue. In this singular way (replication of the space) the multi-channel program brings about a gestalt that is inexpressible with written explanation. For this 1969 recording the venue of the Westminster Cathedral *needs* multi-channel to reproduce a reasonable facsimile of the space, which, by comparison, is simply not so nearly accomplished in the two-channel program of this SACD. (Anyone who has been to the Cathedral [or to the Abbey], or similarly sized cathedral,if only to hear the sounds of whispering docents, probably know what I mean). In this recording, more than most, the multi-channel presentation serves to exponentially improve the sound quality due to the replication of the space and along the way seemingly raise an already excellent performance to one of pre-eminence.

Aside from the minor criticisms previously noted the only other observation has to do with content arrangement. Since the entire work could not be squeezed onto one disc I would have preferred if disc 1 of this two disc set would have ended with the Lacrymosa (6th movement) and not Quacrens me (5th movement) both which really belong to the same part of the Mass. Or put another way, the Domine Jesu Christe (7th movement) begins another part of the Mass (the Offertory) and would have been fitting to begin the second disc. I realize that is fault finding, but what the heck.

In conclusion, there should be no doubt that I hold this SACD, performance and recording (multi-channel especially), in the most reverential regard. Even the technical imperfections noted in the recording are given a free pardon and don't linger as they may have in a middling performance. The power of the Colin Davis performance coupled with the spatial recreation is simply transcendental.

My reaction to this disc at its conclusion is palpably unlike any other recorded performance I have experienced in recent memory. I have referenced in this forum a number of recordings that have moved me to erupt in spontaneous applause such as when I did along side the audience of the Ondine/Eschenbach Saint Saens Organ Symphony (/showreviews/4356#4406) or as I have done with the Classic Channel/Fischer Mahler 2 (/showreviews/3977#4215)when no audience was present. Likewise, there have been jazz recordings during which I also applauded.

But in marked contrast, at what I can only describe as a celestially spiritual conclusion, applause would have seemed sacrilegious. After a decided exhale I was in complete and prolonged thoughtful silence. I was compelled to pause in a whole new way. At various times at the conclusion of this gigantic monument I found myself reflectively weighing issues or concerns ranging from the fallen soldiers for which this composition originally honored, the inevitable transformation we all must make to a different existence, Matthew 25 (Biblical description of the Last Judgment) as well as the deeper meaning of more secular issues such as the recently concluded historical Presidential election. One thing for certain there was nothing cavalier about my actions such as the usual perfunctorily getting out of my listening chair and moving on to the next disc or chore.

I would wager that if Berlioz were to choose a modern conductor to lead this work it would be no other than Sir Colin Davis.

Note: It may seem to be a glaring omision that I made no mention/comparison of the Norrington SACD on Hannsler Classic which I also have. I realize I swimming upstream when I say I find very little to like about this recording. Yes, the performance has it moments, such as in the a cappella Quaecrens me. And the Lacrymosa, too, can be satisfying. But I have found the sound, especially the midrange, to be so unendurably grating I have never been able to sit through the entire performance in a single sitting, although I made numerous attempts (due to the rave reviews at But parts of the performance, too, I found uneven, at best, especially when compared to Colin Davis. For example, I found the deployment of the brass choirs in multi-channel to be over the top with horns blaring behind my head and joltingly loud in a way that served no positive purpose.

Robert C. Lang

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Review by canonical March 1, 2009 (5 of 12 found this review helpful)
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Berlioz's Requiem requires a monster orchestra of 180 instruments. On top, Berlioz prescribed minimum vocal forces of 80 females, 60 tenors and 70 basses. That sums to about 400 performers. Bigger than Ben Hur.

It's very nice that SACD has a dynamic range of 120 dB, but if the original recording tapes (1971) could only manage maybe something in the high eighties (?), then that is ultimately what one is stuck with (sans the engineers playing expansion tricks ex-post).

This is music that could really benefit from a new 21st C DSD recording, and then popped fresh into your SACD player. 400 performers indidly! Whereas some solo instrument recordings from the 60s and 70s have transferred superbly to SACD (such as Gould's Bach or Starker's Bach), I did not feel that this is a successful transfer. Perhaps that is unfair ... To put the point differently, there is so much more that is possible on SACD given a modern recording, for a piece with such massive (400+) requirements.

Even on the performance side, I find it mixed.

On the downside, the adult choral forces have variable intonation (euphemistic), particularly the tenors. Some parts of the first CD have a 'shout it out' screeching choral tone, and the sound can be boomy, bangy, muffled and uneven.

On the positive side, the LSO itself is in superb form, and the sound of the strings is fabulous. The lacrymosa and Domine Jesu Christe have wonderful moments, as do the final sanctus. Some of it is wonderful. Indeed, the whole of the second CD is far more satisfying than the first CD. And Ronald Dowd gives a splendid performance in the Sanctus.

Overall, it may be interesting to have this historic 1970 performance on SACD, but equally, given SACD tehnology, a piece with requirements of such physical magnitude really could benefit from a modern recording.

My above comments refer to the SACD stereo playback. The other reviews here (which are much more favourable) have commented on the SACD multi-channel track.

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Review by steviev November 23, 2013 (2 of 5 found this review helpful)
For 1969, this is as good as it gets. For 2013, it's a nonstarter.

After listening to these SACDs, I immediately dropped the laser on my only other recording of Berlioz's Requiem: a pair of 1999 Naxos RBCDs (by one Elora Festival Orchestra under Noel Edison, vocals by the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir and Youth Choir). Wow, what a difference 30 years worth of technological progress makes. The sound is lifelike, blended, dynamic, and Massive. No matter how loud everyone sings and plays, and you know this requiem gets LOUD at times, there is no sense of pressure, no sense that the recording medium itself in any way limits the performers or how we experience them.

Not so with this Pentatone quad reissue. I had a sense at the loudest parts that I was listening to a miniature choir and orchestra, almost as if I was watching them inside a diorama -- a representation of an orchestra, but not really an orchestra. A toy orchestra. Back in the '60s, this sort of dynamic compression was mandatory, but thanks to CDs our ears are accustomed to full-range dynamics, and for me there's just no going back.

And despite being in quad, the soundstage is two-dimensional -- I didn't feel like I was anyplace in particular. The orchestra sections and especially the choirs sound fragmented and isolated in space from one another, as if this was recorded in a studio and not a cathedral. This was "achieved" via multi-miking, obviously.

And, as mentioned by the other reviewers, there is audible tape hiss that you soon forget about.

I would recommend this recording only to people who already know and love this performance from LPs or previous CD reissues. Outside of sentiment and nostalgia, this set has little to offer when compared against a modern recording.

In contrast to the budget Brahms symphonies quad reissue, this set is full-price. If it were sold as a twofer, it might be worth a listen. I regret buying this set and will be selling it back to Music Millennium the next time I'm in Portland.

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