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Luigi CHERUBINI (1760 - 1842): Requiem in c minor

Kammerchor Stuttgart; Hofkapelle Stuttgart
Dir: Frieder Bernius

rec: May 13 - 15, 2010, Reutlingen-Gönningen, Evangelische Kirche
Carus - 83.227 (© 2010) (46'12")

Luigi Cherubini has played an important role in music history, but that isn't really reflected in modern music practice. Very few of his many compositions are performed and recorded. The two most famous pieces from his pen are the opera Medée and the Requiem in c minor. It is disappointing that conductors limit themselves to recording the same pieces over and over again. The Requiem has been recorded with period instruments at least twice, by Christoph Spering (Opus 111; 1994) and by Martin Pearlman (Telarc, 2006).

Cherubini was born in Florence and received the first music lessons from his father. His first compositions were vocal, both sacred - sections of the mass - and secular: a cantata and an intermezzo. Vocal music was to be the main focus of his compositional activities. The amount of instrumental music in his output is very small, among which the six keyboard sonatas and the six string quartets are the best-known. In 1784 he travelled to London where he became associated with the King's Theatre. The next year he went to Paris, and in France he would remain the rest of his life.

Here he experienced the end of the monarchy and the French revolution with all the trials and tribulations going along with that. He continued to compose operas, among them his most famous, Médée, but he also became involved in performances of a revolutionary character, like the celebrations of the third anniversary of the death of Louis XVI in 1796. When Napoleon took power his fortune waned because Napoleon had a special liking for Italian music and considered Cherubini's music too French. The composer went to Vienna where he was received with great honour by, among others, Haydn and Beethoven.

In France Cherubini played an important role in music education. His first affiliation with the Conservatoire dates from the 1790s, and after the restoration of the monarchy that role increased. In 1822 he was appointed director of the Conservatoire, a position he held until his death. In 1815 he had already been appointed superintendent of the royal chapel under Louis XVIII. That year he had contributed to the festivities at the occasion of the return of Louis. The next year Cherubini again wrote music to the commemoration of the death of Louis XVI, but this time not festive music, but rather a Requiem, the one in c minor recorded here.

This Requiem mass is a mixture of old-fashioned and modern elements. Cherubini had always been interested in polyphony as he transcribed pieces by, for instance, Palestrina, Marcello and Handel. That has left its marks in his own sacred music, including the Requiem in c minor, for instance in the Introitus and Kyrie, the Graduale and the Offertorio. At the same time he uses the orchestra to create an atmosphere which fits the content. A good specimen is his setting of the Sequentia 'Dies irae', in which the wind play a crucial role to depict the text. Much more introverted, but equally expressive is the Agnus Dei.

The instrumentation is quite effective in this work. In the Introitus and Kyrie the violins are silent, just as the oboes, clarinets and trumpets, whereas the timpani play muted. Even more sober is the Graduale. In the Sequentia the full range of instruments of the orchestra is used, and particularly the opening causes quite a shock. Its effect is all the stronger as it is preceded by the Tractus 'Absolve Domine' which is not set by Cherubini. It is performed here in plainchant. I don't know whether this was indicared by Cherubini; the recordings by Spering and Pearlman mentioned above don't include this section.

The Kammerchor Stuttgart is one of the world's best choirs, and its many recordings bear witness of that. With this recording they show once again their strength: a perfect technique, immaculate ensemble, transparency and good delivery. In particular in repertoire of the late classical and early romantic period the dynamic control is crucial, and the way Bernius explores the full dynamic range of his choir is impressive. The orchestra as a whole and all its various sections are outstanding and contribute to an interpretation which makes Cherubini's Requiem shine in full glory.

There are two issues which raise questions. Firstly, the use of the Italian pronunciation of Latin. As far as I know the French pronunciation was used until the end of the 19th century. This subject should be given more attention. The second issue is the performance of plainchant. The Tractus is here sung in a rather classical way, just as it would be sung in a programme of renaissance music. I am pretty sure this is not the way plainchant was performed in Cherubini's time. It is quite possible that plainchant was accompanied by an organ and probably also a serpent. And it is also imaginable that plainchant wasn't just sung monophonically, but with fauxbourdon. There are recordings of plainchant repertoire from 19th century sources, and it would be nice if the results of scientific research in this field would be incorporated into recordings of 19th-century sacred music.

It is a shame Bernius only recorded the Requiem. Aren't there some other pieces he could have recorded as well? I can well imagine some people might think hard about purchasing a disc with just 46 minutes of music. Lastly, isn't it time Cherubini's oeuvre is seriously explored and other music from his pen is recorded?

Johan van Veen (© 2011)

Relevant links:

Kammerchor Stuttgart

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