Big Berlioz takes a pasting from Albert Hall (umpire: Davis)

Berlioz | Prom 12, Royal Albert Hall and Bach/Locatelli/Vivaldi | Prom 15, Royal Albert Hall
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The Independent Culture

'It's what he would have wanted" is the traditional platitude as the coffin slides along the crematorium conveyor belt to the Greatest Hits of Bryan Adams. And - from what I could overhear from the BBC box during the near-silent pause before Berlioz's Grand Messe des Morts at the Royal Albert Hall - that was more or less what James Naughtie was telling the television audience about Berlioz and the massed forces assembled on the stage, in the seats behind it, and in the boxes either side of it. It was quite a sight: 500 singers, an orchestra of 187, and more bow ties than a Moonie wedding ceremony. But whether Berlioz really would have wanted the performance we were about to hear is a moot point.

'It's what he would have wanted" is the traditional platitude as the coffin slides along the crematorium conveyor belt to the Greatest Hits of Bryan Adams. And - from what I could overhear from the BBC box during the near-silent pause before Berlioz's Grand Messe des Morts at the Royal Albert Hall - that was more or less what James Naughtie was telling the television audience about Berlioz and the massed forces assembled on the stage, in the seats behind it, and in the boxes either side of it. It was quite a sight: 500 singers, an orchestra of 187, and more bow ties than a Moonie wedding ceremony. But whether Berlioz really would have wanted the performance we were about to hear is a moot point.

It's ironic that while the last two months have seen 18th century detail swallowed whole and regurgitated as a wash of incoherent sound in St Paul's Cathedral, the very piece that would most suit St Paul's wildly resonant acoustic was delivered in the Death Valley dryness of the Royal Albert Hall. The Grand Messe des Morts was written for the opulent acoustic of Les Invalides and frankly would have benefited from the odd touch of marbled echo on Sunday night. There's no point in getting too hung up on this here - the question of the Royal Albert Hall's suitability as the sole venue for the vast variety of music that each year's Proms bring is far too emotive a subject to be dealt with in a few words - but once again I regretted that I was hearing a work in this space. And, a few bars in to the Introitus, I rather regretted that I was hearing it performed by so many musicians.

Still, there was something inspiring about seeing the combined talents of the Paris Conservatoire and the Guildhall School of Music and Drama seated there. As they took up their bows, the 24 first violins, 21 second violins, 20 violas, 16 cellos and 14 double basses vibrated with an energy rarely seen in the seasoned hack. Their backs were erect - years of professional touring with luggage and instrument cases yet to bend them - their eyes fixed on Sir Colin Davis. As the first sweetly soaring string melody swept upwards from the ecstatic choral cry of " luceat" it was impossible not to think, gosh, they're good. But that was pretty much it from the strings (and the woodwind) until the Offertorium, as the unwieldy chorus - amateur, student, and a handful of professionals brought in to "bump up" the tenors - took over and engaged in a volume competition with the 18 percussionists and 38 brass players. The brass players won.

It's hard to leave cathartic expectations behind and to set aside the very personal qualities of the Requiems of Mozart, Brahms and Fauré. Berlioz's Requiem was a government commission and, as such, had to deliver a hefty quota of national pomp. There is scant soft solace for the bereaved here and the staccato stutters of '"ne-me-per-das" give a distancing operatic grandeur to a prayer for salvation. But there is more to this Requiem than pomp - more even than the obviously reflective calm of the quieter passages - and the key moments of Berlioz's complex middle-ground were the moments that were most obscured. What can you make of the overall shape of a piece of music if the detail is lost? While Berlioz was unpredictable, disregarding of convention, and a true Romantic in the sense of uniting intellect and emotion, his Requiem hangs on quirky detail as much as the eccentrically orchestrated blocked chords. As it was, the exuberant brass players hit a decibel level in the Tuba Mirum that was more Brixton Academy than Royal Academy. Sunday night's performance was impressive, but only on a very simplistic level. It's an old, old saw about size that it's what you do with it that counts, but, as many a dubious late-night documentary has shown, size can be a handicap as much as a gift.

In the hands of a less great conductor the performance could have been dreadful - the capacity for rhythmic confusion in the Lacrymosa is frightening - and it is to his credit that Davis held each musician in the thrall of his expansive, precise beat. But there was little possibility of him enlightening the listener to the beauty and integrity of this music, or revealing something new about it in the way he has done through his Berlioz Odyssey with the LSO. The few skeins of miraculous shape that he managed to sculpt were as fine as any of his work, but he was hard pressed to pull it off. The sheer volume of people meant that Davis was, as my companion succinctly pointed out, forced to be "a traffic cop", and, for all the thrill of having so much youthful idealism in front of him, it must have been a terribly frustrating experience for the man who has become the greatest exponent of Berlioz. Davis once said that conducting was "15 per cent music and the rest is dealing with human beings". I suspect the ratio must have been altered on Sunday.

Baroque violinist Fabio Biondi's late-night Prom with Europa Galante could hardly have been in greater contrast. A desire to satisfy the Royal Albert Hall's giant maw generally leads Baroque bands to bring in extra players in an attempt to reach out to the audience, but Biondi stuck resolutely to his small line up of 11 gut strings plus wooden flute and oboe d'amore, and drew the listener in to a concentrated circle of intimate detail, turning the group's vulnerability completely to its advantage.

There is something irrepressibly positive about Biondi. He must have played havoc with the radio engineers as he bounced around the stage to scoop up any momentarily inattentive violins or independently-minded cellists. And even as he plays the most exquisitely mournful arias of Vivaldi, the energy that springs from his gestures is palpable. The inherent tension of this energy when pitted against slowness (and quietness for that matter) was what made the central movements of the two Vivaldi concertos so electric. Their ordered Palladian beauty was solemnly mapped-out, but that same taut solemnity hampered Ich habe genug - the second of the two Bach solo cantatas sung by tenor Ian Bostridge - and led to an almost comatose delivery of Schlummert ein.

BVW 82a, a transcription of the cantata for oboe obbligato and bass voice, is usually heard from a soprano and judging from Tuesday's performance that is probably where it should stay. Bostridge's high notes rang pure in the opening limpid phrases but he was left with nowhere to go for the bottom notes. Perhaps it was a cruel piece to do so late at night? Vocal chords warm up through the day in both senses: no-one likes high Gs in the morning, and few opt for low Bs at bedtime. Certainly Bostridge was wise to choose the ossia version in the final aria of 82a. Less convincing was his last minute decision to deliver the final cadence up an octave, and it was an unusually anxious performance from a singer generally associated with aristocratic languor.

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