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Pierre BENOIT (1834-1901)
Religious Tetralogy
Noel (1858) [8:15]
Messe Solenne (1860) [52:03]
Te Deum (1862) [17:52]
Requiem (1863) [43:56]
Alvaro Zambrano, Yves Saelens (tenor)
Namur Chamber Choir, Octopus Symphony Chorus
Antwerp Symphony Orchestra/Jan Willem de Vriend (Noel), Martyn Brabbins (Messe, Te Deum); Edo de Waart (Requiem)
rec. live, 2015-2017
Texts and notes included.

Peter (originally Pierre) Benoit was the prime force behind efforts to create a distinctly Flemish, as opposed to French-oriented, music for Belgium. But he first became known through a quartet of choral/orchestral works on sacred Latin texts. These works follow a plan conceived by Benoit to illustrate the Christian’s progress through life. The birth of Christ in Noel is followed by the struggles of life in the Messe Solenne, the triumph of faith in the Te Deum, and the inevitable journey to the next life in the Requiem.

Benoit spent several years in Paris and all four of the works on these discs show the influence of Beethoven, Berlioz, Gounod, and Saint-SaŽns. They demonstrate the composer’s efforts to achieve a balance between liturgical appropriateness and dramatic intensity. Noel is appropriately pastoral, and while traditional, is very effecting. The three works that follow are all larger-scale and feature double choirs and roles for the organ - very much in the French style of the time.

Much of the Messe Solenne is somber. The opening Kyrie is notable for its use of contrasting voices, both within choirs and between them. Benoit’s orchestration is very fresh and original. The Gloria continues the solemnity with a beautiful “Qui tollis” section for voices accompanied only by the organ. The Credo section demonstrates far more emotion than its predecessors - a true proclamation of faith. While the choral writing in the Credo is impressive it is really the orchestra (ŗ la Berlioz) that carries things along. The Sanctus is not so distinctive but the following Benedictus is the high point of the mass. Framed by a section for harp and the cello it is sung by a tenor soloist with male voices in the background. One may be reminded of the tenor solos in Berlioz’s Requiem and Te Deum. Benoit’s Agnus Dei is a quiet ending to this ultimately dramatic work.

Berlioz is definitely an influence in Benoit’s Te Deum, not only dramatically but structurally: the entire work is bound together thematically and there is again effective use of multiple choirs. While the first part of the Te Deum is the rousing hymn of praise that one might expect, the central part, evoking Christ’s incarnation, is what most interests Benoit and this elicits much beautiful writing for the chorus before the return of the opening grandeur.

Like the Messe Solenne the Requiem begins solemnly and with an added measure of austerity provided by a solo horn playing a theme which binds together the entire work. Indeed, by this point Benoit had become extremely adept at careful organization of his material. The opening Requiem aeternam is somewhat crushing in feeling but the section eventually lightens. While the Dies Irae section is appropriately energetic the drama is achieved by choral contrast again rather than by more conventional means and the final effect is more one of sadness than terror. After a Sanctus section reminiscent of Gounod comes a fine Benedictus for choir accompanied first by harp and strings and then only by the organ. The concluding Agnus Dei is full of a sense of pleading before a return to the music heard at the opening of the piece.

While the Messe Solenne and the Requiem have been recorded before by Alexander Rahbari on Etcetera it is probably best to have the entire cycle together so as to be able to realize the composer’s original concept. In spite of having multiple tenors, locations, and conductors, Benoit’s overall sound is maintained throughout by the use of the same choral and orchestral forces, who are uniformly excellent, especially the two choirs. Martyn Brabbins brings a lot of verve to the Messe Solenne and the Te Deum while Edo de Waart has a greater sense of line and shading in the Requiem but they both make the strongest case for Benoit’s music.

The Antwerp Symphony Orchestra (formerly the Royal Flemish Philharmonic) has been performing a Benoit cycle for the last few years at various locations in Belgium. In 2015 RFP released a recording of a live performance of Benoit’s oratorio De Schelde, conducted by Brabbins. Besides the live performances on these two discs they have also performed Benoit’s oratorio Lucifer and his big cantata De oorlog (War) and it is to be hoped that these two will also be made available on CD. Recommended for all admirers of 19th century choral music.

William Kreindler

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