EIF 2015 review: Grande Messe des Morts

First published in The Herald on 23 August, 2015

It was 50 years ago to the day — 22 August, 1965 — that Arthur Oldham jam-packed the choir stalls of the Usher Hall for the inaugural gathering of the Edinburgh Festival Chorus. 240 adults and 100 boys sang Mahler’s Eighth Symphony, among them a young Donald Runnicles. Three years later Herbert von Karajan declared the EFC “one of the three great choirs of Europe”; half a century later, via Verdi Requiems with Giulini, Stravinsky Symphony of Psalms with Abbado, Mahler Resurrections with Bernstein, last week’s Mozart Requiem with Fischer and a few other momentous landmarks besides, the EFC marked its anniversary with the apocalyptic might and perilous vocal challenges of Berlioz’s Grande Messe des Morts.

Everyone remembers the big shiny bits of the Grande Messe: those blazing brass fanfares ricocheting across the hall in the Tuba mirum, the ecstatic tenor solo in the Sanctus (here Lawrence Brownlee pelting it out with exactly the right ping, bravado and tight Gallic vibrato). But the majority of the score is spent in hushed, sombre counterpoint with the choir teetering around some very exposed rock faces in the Kyrie and the Quaerens me.

This performance found a decent balance. Esa-Pekka Salonen’s conducting was resolutely unhysterical in climaxes, borderline undemonstrative in quiet passages. His pacing was superb. The Philharmonia sounded crisp, disciplined, clean. Chorus master Christopher Bell had worked wonders with the singers — they gamely scaled the Quaerens me with some admirable high, quiet sounds and gave bounce and rigour to the Lacrimosa — but this voluntary choir is at its best in full voice. The Rex tremendae was suitably tremendous and the mystical chords of the final Amens were downright glowing.