I read the other review here and got a bit suspicious. While I generally respect the opinions of "Santa Fe" I find in his reviews a consistent bias toward interpretations that are more "exciting" or "dramatic." Those two terms are highly subjective, and in my drearily long experience with music listeners--the *market*--I've found that they tend to mean louder, faster, techni-colored, and,too often, insensitive, superficial, and rock and roll-ish. In my happily long experience with music *listening* I've learned that there are many ways to produce the subjective experience of drama or excitement, including pulling back a bit and letting the music speak for itself, paying attention to the overall concept, and avoiding producing a stereo demonstration record.
I read other reviews of this Requiem, elsewhere, and found something intriguingly consistent in them. All agree this has fine singers and chorus and great work by the orchestra, but Munch's recording was also reported as being more sensitive, detailed, and spiritual than most. I decided to buy a copy.
Hector Berlioz was a complex man and a composer far ahead of his time. He marketed himself as the ultimate loony Romantic and this reputation maintained itself into modern times. I think Berlioz's self-mythologizing actually helped many listeners cope with the modernity of the music--helped it sell. What was actually often brilliant and subtle, but confusingly above the heads of his contemporaries, could be *accepted* as "bad-boy" music (nearly every bit in the George Antheil sense): individualistic, revolutionary, and anti-establishment. By the early 20th Century, even someone as usually insightful as Donald Francis Tovey bought into this bad-boy myth, and did much to perpetuate it. Later, and beginning with Jacques Barzun and Colin Davis, and with accolades by level-headed composers like Stravinsky, more studious analysis of Berlioz's scores showed him to be far more than a manufacturer of sonic blockbusters and daring effects. Tovey's criticisms of Berlioz, and his patronizing attitude toward the composer, were the outpourings of a person who didn't *get* Berlioz. Sadly, it's probably Berlioz's fault, but what else could Berlioz do?
As much as I love Berlioz's music, I never cared for the Requiem. It seemed shallow and superficial--a cynical mob pleaser. George Bernard Shaw didn't like it either and compared its seeming trivial profundities to someone try to scare us by waving around a skull with a candle in it. Now, with this Munch recording, it's no longer a shallow sonic blockbuster but instead a proper requiem, and a very great one. I recommend it as a first choice, but only if you aren't looking for just thrills and spills, and Halloween scarum.
I recently had a similar experience with Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade. Ferenc Fricsay's performance, once available in the DG box set Ferenc Fricsay: A Life in Music [Box Set], was unlike any I had ever heard. I realized that Fricsay had downplayed the blockbuster side of the piece and presented it as what it truly is, an extraordinary example of musical story-telling. As with the this Berlioz Requiem, this awareness of the flow of the *whole* piece made the dramatic bits--played less dramatically than in most recordings of Scheherazade--far more "impactful". This is an age old technique, found in all the older fine arts and crafts. But *less-is-more* seems to be a lost concept in these hyper-sensationalist times.