SANCTUS

Berlioz 150



West London, Tuesday 16th August 1960. The warren of streets between Holland Park and Kensington Gardens. Old houses, low-rise new-builds. Balmy. Threatening clouds. Together with a group of friends from the 'posh' end of town south of Notting Hill, I'd spent the afternoon doing nothing. Among my companions was a pianist (he ended up in America, a mathematical genius) studying with Tanya Polunin, who in her studio at 46 Clarendon Road taught 'according to the principles of Professor Leschetizky'. I envied his facility – he had a way with Chopin (D-minor Polonaise, B-flat minor Nocturne) and tangos (La cumparsita). His younger sister (she ended up in France) was into Cliff Richard. One of their Lycée Français circle was a pale girl in a grey silk dress who'd modelled Hanover Square Haydn fashion in at least one book. I used to take her rowing on the Serpentine (she went into Mexican art). Then there was Gilda, whose family originated from the East End. I knew her less well. But she played a surprising role that day. As we said our au revoirs, she blurted out: 'My dad's on the radio tonight, he's a singer, have a listen.'I wasn't into singers – pianists and conductors being my thing – but, yes, I said, thanks, I will, feigning enthusiasm. 





7.30 pm, BBC Third Programme. The Proms. Royal Albert Hall, pre-'flying saucer' acoustic, cavernous. First half. Beethoven's incidental music to Egmont, Marius Goring narrating. Second half. Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra. Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Choir, BBC Singers, BBC Symphony Chorus, members of the Liverpool Philharmonic Choir and Wembley Philharmonic Society. John Pritchard conducting. The finest English 'Italian' tenor of the post-war, brought up on Caruso – Charles Craig. Gilda's father. Tuning in to an unwieldy, scarcely adequate, Bush medium-wave radio, mono only, what on earth, I wondered, was in store? Berlioz, Grande messe des morts, Opus 5 – belatedly, its premiere at the Proms. At this point in time I remember the occasion more than the notes. The brass bands of the ‘Dies irae’, at the four compass points of the hall, were loud but, inevitably, muddied, without spatial sense – BBC stereo didn't start until April 1966. But then, out of nowhere, came the D-flat Sanctus, with Craig's voice, a huge, focussed presence, floating the cadences, the high B-flats soaring without restriction, bloomed and glowing like soft candle-light in a cathedral. I was completely won over, dizzy with the beauty of it all, feeling oddly connected. After all, I knew his daughter…





Liverpool Anglican Cathedral
23rd November 1962
Charles Craig



Soon the proud owner of a blue Breitkopf vocal score, then a miniature one (of the larger yellow Eulenburg variety), I got to know the work in every detail of structure, tonality, orchestration and choral writing. Total immersion. Even before the Symphonie fantastique. Yet I found it emotionally draining to experience too frequently. Like Shostakovich Eight, Bruckner Eight, Mahler Two, it was only for occasional listening, every few years or so. At the 1967 Proms, 23rd August, I had my first exposure in person, in a performance by George Hurst and the BBC Symphony Orchestra, Gerald English taking the solo part. I think I reviewed it.





More lasting, life-definingly so, was my next encounter. Friday 6th June 1969. 8.15 p.m., St Paul's Cathedral. London Symphony Orchestra, regimental bands. Four choirs. Colin Davis. Ronald Dowd. Marking the centenary of Berlioz's death, with programme notes by David Cairns – a writer steeped in the eloquence of words, like William Mann and Deryck Cooke – this was a performance that thundered and ricocheted around the building from Wellington to Valhalla. The clamour of the ‘Dies irae’, the massive gloire of the E-flat brass fanfares of the 'Tuba mirum', shook the vaults, the sound reaching for the dome, wanting to escape. Two moments haunted me. The pianissimo cymbals and gran cassa on the reprise of the ‘Sanctus’, with an effect like swinging incense burners stopping for no man. And the sixteen subterranean funeral drums at the close, throbbing their G-major 'Amen', each piano chord dying to nothing, the nave stilled in awe. 


Over the coming years other performances yielded a mixture of surprises, cautions and disappointments. In his Vienna period, Leif Segerstam produced one of the best ‘Lacrimosa’ finishes, accented bass drum, violas and cellos cutting through the mix with theatrical clarity. Involved in a performance with Loris Tjeknavorian and the LSO at the Royal Albert Hall, I was struck by the sheer enormity of balancing and co-ordination difficulties the music poses. André Previn proved conclusively (disastrously) that in a dry acoustic like the Royal Festival Hall, the architecturally placed pauses and temporal science of the work – designed for a large resonant acoustic: the first performance, in 1837, was in Les invalides, location of the 1975 Bernstein recording, and Scherchen's much earlier – simply become a nonsense. I've long had this fantasy that the tenor soloist should somehow be suspended above the orchestra, a voice in the distance beyond mortal contact. John Eliot Gardiner came close at St Denis in 2012, with Michael Spyres (ideally unforced in his delivery) placed high. For all the vast resources at his disposal, Berlioz gives us much in these pages that is restrained and refined, wondrously so. As well as in the ‘Sanctus’ a duet for tenor and (purifying) flute that is sublime – but also treacherous. In Dudamel's 2014 account at Notre Dame, Andrew Staples and Magali Mosnier, individual moments of tone and fine phrasing notwithstanding, never entirely got it together - Staples having the better run three years later under Jukka-Pekka Saraste in Cologne Cathedral. For an alternative interpretation, informed by period practice, and with French rather than Italian Latin pronunciation (“coeli”, for example, becoming see-lee rather than chay-lee), Paul McCreesh's 2011 Signum Classics release, with Robert Murray (ethereally placed), the Gabrieli Players and Consort, and the Wrocław Philharmonic Choir and Orchestra, has proved enlightening. 


'If,' Berlioz wrote from his bed in January 1867, 'I were threatened by the destruction of my entire works save one, I should crave mercy for the Messe des morts.' Sixty years with this music, I am more passionate about it than ever. But I have yet to find again Charles Craig... 



Adapted by kind permission

© Ateş Orga 8 March 2019
not to be reproduced without permission