MUSIC / The phoenix rises: Anthony Payne on the British premiere of Berlioz's 'lost' Mass at Westminster Cathedral
Berlioz gave the score to an old friend, the Belgian violinist Antoine Bessems, in 1835. He was by then dissatisfied with the piece as a whole, and had already recycled the main idea of the Gratias in his Symphonie Fantastique. On Bessems' death, the manuscript passed to his brother, a choirmaster in Antwerp.
Putting aside the question of its individual achievement, the discovery of this first major creative project by one of the 19th century's key figures must still warrant the utmost enthusiasm. But does the music possess qualities over and above its historical fascination as an indication of Berlioz's early preoccupations and as a pointer to later, more fully characteristic masterpieces? John Eliot Gardiner and his Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique and Monteverdi Choir showed us with a magnificent British premiere at Westminster Cathedral.
In fact there are many startling indications of Berlioz's visionary genius, while time and again the unique tone of voice and syntax of his mature language are already in evidence. It's difficult to imagine, for example, that the composer was 20 when he conceived the opening Kyrie and had only been studying music formally for one year. No wonder his teacher embraced him after hearing the work and told him he would be a great composer. The insistent stabbing sforzandos that punctuated the Kyrie's smoothly unfolding cantabile lines leave us in no doubt that a new voice of genius is demanding to be heard.
The opening sequence of numbers sustains this individual fire with astonishing confidence. The tuneful chirrupings of the Gloria evince a cheerfulness for which only Haydn's religious music provides a spiritual precedent, while the succeeding Gratias achieves the graceful calm of the mature composer. After the lively, if less characteristic, Quoniam and a surprisingly jaunty Credo, the work reaches its peak with the highly individual pastoralism of the Incarnatus and the apocalyptic Resurrexit, whose astounding brass sonorities (replete with eye-catching buccin and serpent) were to reappear in the Requiem. No wonder Berlioz also cannibalised this section in Benvenuto Cellini.
If inspiration burns a little fitfully in the second half, the music is never less than engaging. There is a grave and stately progress in the Agnus Dei, for instance, that is most impressive, while the innocent charm of L'Enfance du Christ is prefigured in the Salutaris. Altogether a performance to recall with gratitude.
The performance is broadcast on Sunday at 10pm on Radio 3
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