Berlioz Requiem – St Paul’s Cathedral

Shame-faced confession #643: I’ve never been inside St Paul’s cathedral.

I’ve walked around it, I’ve looked up at it, admired it from across the river, given tourists directions to it, and frequently used the Tube station that bears its name; once, feeling particularly dejected, and looking for a place to sit and collect my thoughts in the days before there was a franchise coffee shop on every street corner,  I even got as far as the door, only to find they were just closing up.  But I’d never crossed the threshold, until this week.

I went to a concert arranged under the auspices of the City of London Festival, of Berlioz’s Requiem, played by the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus and the London Philharmonic Choir , under the direction of Sir Colin Davies.  We were told to be there on time, as it was being broadcast live on BBC Radio 3, here, an instruction that, inevitably, profoundly irritated me.  I’m happy to be there on time out of respect for the orchestra and choristers, and for my fellow members of the audience, but no, not for the convenience of the Beeb’s schedulers.

I’d never heard this Requiem before, and you already know that I’m not that well educated musically, and the lasting impression left with me from this experience was the sheer amount of noise human voices can make when joined together and singing at full gusto.  The acoustics of the cathedral meant that by the time the sound reached me in the middle of the nave it had already swirled around the pillars and up and down in the dome, and had acquired a fuzzy edge and a little tail end echo.  I couldn’t distinguish any individual words, but simply let the rich sound engulf me.

One the things I usually enjoy about a concert is watching the musicians at their task; the intensity of their faces, the sweep of their arms and fingers, their concentration, but this time they were all a little too far away for that, so I was left with the cathedral, the enormous pillars and the elaborate lights to study, and to surrender to the sounds of the concert, and especially the fantastic deep and sonorous tone of the bass sections of the choirs.

Some of the notes were ghostly and strange because of the building.  During the segment on which Barry Banks the tenor was singing alone, there was a single timpani beat, accompanied by what to me sounded like a human voice ‘ssssshhhhhh’; S, my much more knowledgeable friend, told me that it was cymbals.  The explanation was at the same time both satisfying in that it answered my question, but also disappointing as it  removed a little bit of mystery.

It was an extraordinary experience to feel the whole space of the cathedral filled with sound and to see every seat in the audience filled.

I’ll have to go back another day to see the cathedral in another guise.

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