Charles Craig with Marie Collier
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 February 1979 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 ...
8 March 2019