When I was around 19 or 20 I went through a phase of being totally obsessed with sacred choral music, namely classical composers’ renditions of the Latin Mass. I’m not particularly religious, but there’s something about this kind of stuff that really gets to me: the emotional intensity, the humility, hope and longing simultaneously expressed by so many voices. It somehow makes me feel better about humanity. Among my favourites were Verdi’s Requiem and Mozart’s amazing unfinished Mass in C minor (which you might remember from that famous scene in Amadeus). But for my money, it’s Hector Berlioz’s Grande Messe des Morts that stands out as the most intense, over-the-top, transcendental work in the genre.
Commissioned by the French government to write a piece in memory of the soldiers killed in the July Revolution of 1830, the flamboyant young composer decided to pull out all the stops and set up as “big” a performance as was humanly possible. Berlioz was among the first composers to put a lot of thought in acoustics, the matching of space and sonority, and wanted the arrangement and orchestration to contribute as much to the overall experiences as the notes that were being sung and played. Knowing that it would be premiered at Les Invalides, the giant-domed cathedral of the military hospital in Paris, his aim here was to create a huge block of three-dimensional sound that would wash over and completely overwhelm the audience. The orchestra and choir were accordingly large. The arrangement calls for roughly 400 performers, including 210 singers, 4 brass enssembles, more than a hundred strings (including 18 double basses), 18 timpanis and two bass drums.
Despite the logistical difficulties of such a large-scale performance (and a bitter, resentful conductor who went out of his way to sabotage the premiere), the Requiem was a resounding success and established itself as the highlight of the composer's patchy (but often brilliant) career.
This is a recording of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Charles Dutoit. It’s probably not the best one out there, and for some reason has a reputation for being a slightly “colder” performance than others. I think it’s pretty good though. But then again, I don’t really know anything about classical music recordings, so what would I know.