Requiems for Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette
Luigi CHERUBINI (1760-1842)
Requiem in C minor à la mémoire de Louis XVI (1815 or earlier) [37:12]
Charles-Henri PLANTADE (1764-1839)
Messe des morts (Requiem) in D minor à la mémoire de Marie-Antoinette (1823 or earlier: first recording) [31:57]
Le Concert Spirituel/Hervé Niquet
rec. Chapelle Royale du Château de Versailles, 21-22 January 2016. DDD.
Latin texts, English and French translations included
ALPHA 251 [69:14]
I was intrigued by this disc. I had a modest degree of familiarity with Cherubini’s C minor Requiem because a good few years ago I bought the recording by the Corydon Singers and Orchestra under Matthew Best. I must admit, though, that it’s quite some time since I listened to that disc (Hyperion CDA66805). As for Charles-Henri Plantade, I had never heard his D minor Requiem before; indeed, it may well be the case that I’ve never previously heard a note of his music.
King Louis XVI and his Queen, Marie-Antoinette were the most prominent among the many aristocratic – and non-aristocratic – victims of the so-called Reign of Terror during the French Revolution. The King was executed in January 1793 and Marie-Antoinette followed him to the guillotine in October of the same year. The fairly brief restoration of the French monarchy in the post-Napoleon era enabled a more dignified treatment of the remains of the couple. In 1815, on the exact anniversary of the King’s execution, his body and that of his Queen were re-interred in the Basilica of Saint-Denis in Paris. On that occasion Cherubini’s C minor Requiem was performed. The Plantade Requiem was heard in 1823 at a ceremony in Paris to mark the 30th anniversary of the Queen’s execution though the work was probably written earlier than this.
Both compositions are squarely within the French tradition of grand ceremonial pieces of music, a tradition that would reach its apogee with Berlioz’s Requiem, Te Deum and Grande symphonie funèbre et triomphale. Neither work includes any solo vocal parts; the choir and orchestra carry all the musical argument.
Hervé Niquet uses fairly modest forces. His orchestra numbers 35 players. The choir has 8 sopranos, 5 altos, 2 hautes-contres, 6 tenors and 5 basses. The Cherubini is scored for SATB choir but the Plantade has no alto parts; instead there are two tenor lines. The choir sings the Latin words in what I take to be a French accent authentic to the period. For some reason I found this style of pronunciation much more noticeable in the Plantade work where, if you’re following the text, it can be difficult to reconcile what you’re hearing with the familiar words in front of you; that’s especially the case in the ‘Dies Irae’.
The Cherubini Requiem, which is no stranger to the catalogue, is an impressive piece. The opening movement, ‘Introitus and Kyrie’, sets a dignified, patrician tone. The setting of the ‘Dies Irae’ begins in dramatic fashion with brass fanfares and tam-tam strokes. However, the middle of the movement, starting at ‘Recordare’, is somewhat more relaxed. Cherubini ramps up the tension again at ‘Confutatis’ where the music is very sharply accented by Niquet and his musicians. The ‘Offertorium’ is almost jaunty in its pacing and rhythms and there’s a sturdy and quite extensive fugue at ‘Quam olim Abrahae’. The ‘Hostias’ (6:10) is much more lyrical and relaxed until the reprise of the fugue (9:57). Incidentally, on the Matthew Best recording the ‘Hostias’ is treated as a separate movement – even on the Niquet recording it’s preceded by a very definite pause – and Hyperion track it separately. The Sanctus is extrovert and surprisingly short; the movement includes the Benedictus though the words of that section aren’t printed in the booklet. The Agnus Dei is deeply-felt and it leads seamlessly (2:28) into a darkly imposing ‘Lux aeterna’.
It was interesting to compare the Niquet performance with the 1995 Matthew Best recording. Though there’s no want of energy when required, Best tends towards a more measured view and that’s reflected in the fact that his overall timing is 47:04. I don’t know how big a choir he uses – perhaps a little larger than Niquet’s group? – and he doesn’t use period instruments. The Hyperion recording is more distanced. That brings benefits and drawbacks. The Niquet recording has more obvious impact, which is great in sections such as the start and finish of the ‘Dies Irae’, but Best – and his engineers – achieve a greater sense of expectant hush at the beginning of the work. The opening of the ‘Dies Irae’, though good in itself, is not as biting in Best’s performance and he takes the music a fraction steadier than Niquet does. I have a strong preference for Best’s more moderate pacing of the ‘Offertorium’: he makes the music seem more ceremonial and religious; Niquet risks trivialising it at his jaunty, secular-sounding speed. Best is rather more subdued and prayerful in the ‘Hostias’ and he conveys a bit more majesty in the opening of the Sanctus. Though these comparisons might suggest a preference for Best over Niquet I think that overall the pros and cons balance each other out. Niquet’s is a much more authentically French performance and his singers and players articulate the music incisively. I’m glad to have the choice but pressed to a preference I’d opt for Niquet.
The balance shifts decisively in favour of Niquet in the matter of couplings. Best offers Cherubini’s Marche funèbre. That’s very appropriate since it was played to precede the Requiem at a commemoration of the late Duc de Berry in 1820. It’s a grand, imposing piece but it lasts only for 6:18 which is short measure compared to Niquet’s generous coupling.
Plantade’s Requiem, which was completely new to me, is an impressive composition. Essentially, it sets the same texts as Cherubini did. At the very start we hear dark, brooding orchestral sonorities which are interrupted (0:46) by a mighty tam-tam crash just before the choir’s first entry. There’s no little feeling in the music yet it has an air of patrician restraint. The Kyrie is short and fugal; I like the vigour with which Niquet’s choir put this across. There’s some very arresting brass writing at the start of the ‘Dies Irae’ – all the more so thanks to the timbres of the period instruments. The basses begin by singing the plainchant melody associated with the Sequence after which the music is fiery and dramatic. Unlike in Cherubini’s setting of the ‘Dies Irae’ there’s no relaxation partway through. I relished the colourful orchestral detail that comes through in this performance. Given that the music never really eases up it comes as something of a surprise when, after an abrupt cut-off (6:49), the closing lines, beginning at ‘Pie Jesu’ are quiet and devotional.
Unlike Cherubini, Plantade doesn’t set the full text of the ‘Offertorium’. Much of the movement features the male voices only and their timbre, with the hautes-contres on the top line, is fascinating to hear. The brief Sanctus is very strong, almost defiant, in tone; the Benedictus is sung unaccompanied to a plainchant melody by the sopranos after which the Hosanna is fiery. At the start of the ‘Pie Jesu’ we hear a deliberately weird sound which, we learn from the booklet, is the result of an ‘open’ chromatic note played on the horn. It’s accurately described as “a plaintive moan”. Plantade uses the device several times in this section and the strings imitate it; it’s most unusual but effective. Indeed, throughout this movement the orchestral timbres are startlingly original. I found it an unsettling movement. The Agnus Dei is quite gentle. After a short pause (4:26) the concluding ‘Lux aeterna’ is somewhat akin to a funeral march with a gently throbbing bass line underpinning the music. In these pages Plantade essentially reverts to the opening ambience of the work.
Hervé Niquet has done us a great service in bringing Plantade’s Requiem to a wide audience through this recording. Alpha don’t claim it as a first recording but it may well be. It’s something of a discovery and well worth hearing. Like the Cherubini it benefits from a terrific performance.
I’m unsure if the recordings were made at live performances but that may well be the case. The sound is immediate, clear and detailed. The trilingual booklet (French, English and German) is satisfactory but rather too much space is devoted to the artists and sponsoring organisations: more information about the composer and the works – and the background to them – would have been welcome, especially in the case of the unfamiliar Plantade. By comparison, Hyperion’s note about the Cherubini Requiem is much better.
That’s a fairly small reservation, however. What matters is that this disc contains two very interesting French choral works, one of them rescued from obscurity, in excellent performances.
Previous review: Brian Wilson