Telarc has released the Berlioz Requiem on a five-channel Super Audio CD. Why should you care? Because fans of surround sound are always looking for showpieces. Because Telarc, which was named Label of the Year for 2004 by England's Gramophone magazine partly for offering "sound quality of astounding fidelity in the latest formats," has been at the forefront of multichannel music since the start. You should also care about this Requiem because Telarc tackled it with no less than the great Atlanta Symphony Chorus and Orchestra, conducted by their music director since 2001, Robert Spano. And because the French composer himself - if he could hear how a 21st-century format does full justice to the grand architecture and vivid color of his 19th-century music - would no doubt exclaim, "Vive le SACD!" Conductor Robert Spano
After all, Berlioz was thinking big when, in 1837, he scored the Requiem for large chorus and orchestra. Accordingly, the Atlanta forces of today included nearly 200 choristers and an orchestra of more than 100. But Berlioz also called for extra percussion, a tenor soloist, and four brass ensembles. In some of the work's movements, especially the "Tuba mirum" section of the Dies Irae, the brass bands are intended to answer each other from four locations in the performance hall, separate from the orchestra and chorus. The overlapping rhythms of the brass fanfares, joined by the 16 (!) timpani, create an incredible mass of sound - over which the chorus must still be heard.
It's one of the crowning achievements in music and sound, but it's also notoriously difficult to achieve in live performance or on disc. Berlioz wrote of his own frustration after an 1845 performance: "The sound reverberated so slowly that music of any complexity gave rise to the most horrid confusions of harmony. Only the Dies Irae was really effective . . . in those booming cathedral-like spaces."
How, then, did Telarc meet the challenge? I was determined to find out - and in pursuit, I went everywhere from the label's state-of-the-art headquarters in Cleveland to Spano's digs at the funky Chelsea Hotel in New York City .
I would have gone to Atlanta as well - to hear Spano conduct three performances of the Requiem in the Woodruff Arts Center's Symphony Hall, followed by the recording sessions in the same venue - but a personal obligation intervened.
"No matter," said the SACD's producer, Elaine Martone, when I caught up with her in Cleveland for the studio playback. "I'm glad you didn't come to the recording sessions, because we had a couple of technical meltdowns. They were great sessions, but really difficult."