Berlioz in Ely
9 Jul 2014
Cambridge and Norwich Philharmonic Chorus, with 100 instrumentalists, 200 singers and four brass bands filled lofty Ely Cathedral, with their divine recital of Grande Messe De Morts – a mass about death, judgment and salvation.
‘Monumental in scale’, a massive choir, stacked high into the soaring arches of the world famous nave created a glorious wall of sound while supported by an orchestra of delicate subtlety. The bands, hidden in recesses of the vast stone pillars also blasted their glorious contribution.
Together a collection of musicians, most of them amateur - remember the word really means someone who ‘does it for love’ – filled the space with magnificent melody.
It was a quiet opening. The lyrical soprano and alto section sang seamlessly with the orchestra’s strings.
As in all Masses, the Kyrie came first and the two choirs conveyed a melancholy sense of loss: this is a Mass for the Dead, underlined by a solid bass affirmation.
This was a deceptive opening. For next we got the full force of the Dies Irae, the fearful Day of Judgment. Cue blasts of brass - one section was just behind us and no rock concert could compete with the sharp loud alarming volume of these players. If there is a trumpet of doom calling us all at the last day, it will surely sound like this.
But it was the choir that really took this section to the wire. A controlled cacophony of harmonic chaos conveyed the panic and fear of the souls called to judgment, brilliant singing evoked soundscape of humanity under pressure, this was frightening stuff. And yet Berlioz (raised a classic French Catholic) had by now forsaken his faith. Caught up in the revolutions of the era, he was an atheist at the time of writing this phenomenal epic. Somehow that helps. In this piece we hear the cry of all the Dead to be remembered, forgiven, prayed for.
Despite the piece’s sense of trepidation, there is a lyricism here that eventually wins through the alarm and fright of events. He wrote as France was in a post-revolutionary, post- Napoleonic fever, and it was this surge of patriotism that saved the Mass from oblivion. Luigi Cherubini, the court composer, had heard of Berlioz success and spitefully spiked his attempt to have the Grande Messe put on in Paris.
But the recapture of an Algerian city and death of French troops gave young Hector Berlioz the chance to avenge his older rival and have his masterpiece performed. To the end of his days, after a brilliant career, he still thought this Mass was his greatest work.
He would have been happy with last night’s rendition. Despite some heavenly singing from the soprano section, the tenors emerged as the stars of this show. They had the gift of character; as representatives of suffering humanity; insecure and hopeful, but with collective tenderness. Outstanding was the solo performance by the famous Bonaventura Bottome whose voice swelled over the rapt rows of concert goers, in perfect modulation and exquisite precision, each note calibrating to achieve a wonderful effect.
A magnificent harmony of musicians – but above all a moving and deeply emotional piece. The hopeful ending of peace and resolution was truly unforgettable.