Barry Banks reflects on the monumental recording of Berlioz: Grande Messe des morts in St Paul’s Cathedral in June 2012, under the late Sir Colin Davis.
The first time that I encountered the Grande Messe des Morts was as a 21 year old student at the Royal Northern College of Music. Had I realised then, what I do now, I would have run far far away from it. However, the innocence and stupidity of youth led me to actually accept it! The stupidity part helped me to come out of it relatively unscathed, but vowing I wouldn’t try it again for a while! I sang it again, some 14 years later. Even at the age of 35 I felt that I didn’t have the ammunition to do justice.
I was thrilled to be asked to do it with the LSO and Sir Colin. I had performed with him many years before in a concert at Buckingham Palace, but had not worked with him since. This piece, coupled with the fact that, arguably, the greatest exponent of Berlioz was conducting, made this a delicious prospect!
I was filled with excitement and a little trepidation for the rehearsals, but hearing the brass choirs fire up in the cathedral was one of the most thrilling things that I have ever heard. Sir Colin was a joy to work with. He allowed me to have the time and space to approach the solo with, hopefully, elegance and poise! Singing from the magnificent pulpit was incredible, but had me a long way away from Sir Colin. I had to anticipate the beat, but he was so accommodating and understanding.
I have rarely felt so exposed in a solo, but to see St Paul’s Cathedral full to hear the master Berlioz conductor conduct what turned out to be his final oratorio performance was both humbling and wonderful. It will remain one of the highlights of my career.