musica Dei donum

CD reviews

Jean-Paul-Égide MARTINI (1741 - 1816): "Requiem pour Louis XVI"

Adriana Gonzalez, soprano; Julien Behr, tenor; Andreas Wolf, bass
Le Concert Spirituel
Dir: Hervé Niquet

rec: June 2019, Versailles, Chapelle Royale'
Château de Versailles Spectacles - CVS022 (© 2020) (61'25")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: E/D/F
Cover, track-list & booklet

Messe de Requiem pour la Pompe funèbre de Louis XVI et de Marie Antoinette; [Bis] D'après La Marseillaise de Berlioz

The music written in France in the decades around 1800 does not receive that much attention. It is virtually only Luigi Cherubini, whose oeuvre is now and then performed, and that goes in particular for music in large scorings. This may well be due to the fact that a substantial part of what was written at the time, was intended to support the French Revolution and celebrate what it had achieved in the eyes of its supporters. 'Political music' is mostly not the best, as far as quality is concerned. The present disc is a good example of a work hardly anybody may have heard before (although recently another recording was released by the German label Christophorus), written by a composer whom I had never heard of (before the Christophorus release). However, to my surprise he is represented on a large number of discs, but then with just one song, that is recorded over and over again: Plaisir d'amour, a Romance du chevrier, included in a collection of chansons and romances of 1784.

Martini was born in Freystadt in Bavaria and arrived in Nancy in 1760. His musical gifts brought him to the attention of influential patrons. Gradually his fame increased which resulted in his music being performed at the court. In 1787 he became the unofficial director of the concerts de la reine. In 1788 he was to become surintendant de la musique du roi, but this didn't materialize due to the outbreak of the Revolution.

During the early years of the Revolution he composed political chansons and hymns, such as a 'hymn on agriculture' and a piece on the anniversary of the foundation of the republic. "Martini adapted skilfully to the changing regimes", New Grove states. When the monarchy was restored, that was all forgiven and forgotten. Martini was appointed in the position he was unable to take 25 years before.

On 21 January 1815 Louis XVIII had the bodies of his brother and Marie-Antoinette removed from the Cimetière de la Madeleine and taken to Saint Denis, which since the 12th century was the traditional burial place of French monarchs. From 21 January 1816 onwards every year a Requiem for Louis XVI was to be performed. This ritual was "part of a strategy to reinterpret the years of the Revolution and of Napoleon as an illegitimate phase of French history and stifle public memory of this period. In holding the annual remembrance ceremony for the last king of the Ancien Regime exactly on the anniversary of the execution, Louis XVIII was focusing on continuity in which he also saw his own rule, thereby highlighting the dynastic legitimacy of his claim to power", Jörg Krämer states in the liner-notes to the Christophorus disc. Martini was given the honour of composing the Requiem for the first celebration in 1816.

The scoring of the Messe de Requiem is for three solo voices (soprano, tenor, bass), choir and orchestra. The work opens and ends in f minor, a key which Christian Friedrich Daniel Schubart, in his Ideen zu einer Aesthetik der Tonkunst (1806), connects to "deep depression, funereal lament, groans of misery and longing for the grave". The text derives from the traditional Requiem text, in that Libera me and In paradisum are omitted. On the other hand, Martini inserted two sections between Sanctus and Agnus Dei: Elevatione (Almighty God, Lord of Israel, please now hear the prayer of the departed of Israel) and Noli meminisse (Forget the sinful things that our ancestors did in the past; at a time like this think only of your power and reputation, for you are the Lord our God). These are taken from the apocryphal book of Baruch.

Parts of the Requiem are arrangements of earlier compositions, and that also goes for the Elevatione. One of the most notable features of this work is the instrumental scoring. In addition to the usual strings, the score includes parts for pairs of flutes, oboes and clarinets, four bassoons, a serpent, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones and a tam-tam. Niquet's orchestra also includes a harp, cymbals, timbales and a buccin (a wind instrument developed during the French Revolution). To what extent these are indicated in the score is impossible for me to check, as no score is available on-line. It is notable that the Christophorus recording omits these instruments.

The work opens in a dramatic way, with the use of a tam-tam, an instrument which was frequently used in funeral music written during the time of the Revolution. Overall, this section sets the tone as it is pretty noisy and often quite spectacular. Subtlety is not one of the features of this work, as the orchestral forces already suggest. The second section is Dies irae, which is the most dramatic part of this work. The trumpets are involved in the 'Tuba mirum' section, playing military fanfares. They return on 'Lachrymosa', where they are joined by percussion. Here the bass is ordered to sing through a porte-voix - a kind of megaphone - on the words "judicandus homo reus" (the guilty man to be judged). At the close of 'Rex tremendae', the last verse (Juste Judex) is accompanied by trombones. The Dies irae ends with "Amen", preceded by a signal of the trumpet. The same word ends the whole work, and there Martini uses the tam-tam again.

The largest part of this work is for choir and orchestra. The contributions of the three soloists are rather limited; the largest part is for the soprano. The solo sections, including one duet for soprano and tenor, are quite operatic in character.

Martini's Messe de Requiem is an impressive work in some way, provided one is open to the rather exuberant style which was a hallmark of the time. If you prefer subtlety, you should avoid it. Those who appreciate the oeuvre of the likes of Cherubini and Berlioz may well enjoy this work too. Approaching it from its historical context, one has to say that it is well written and that Martini knew how to communicate the text, especially the more threatening parts of the text. It has made me curious about other parts of Martini's oeuvre. The revolutionary stuff is probably better to be ignored, but he also composed sacred music and works for the stage, part of which from before the Revolution. His Messe de Requiem was performed again a couple of months after its premiere - at the occasion of the composer's own death.

The performance is better than the one released by Christophorus, and that is especially due to the quality of the choir, which is superior to the amateur forces on that recording. Now and then the singers allow themselves a bit too much vibrato. That makes the tutti sound even less transparent than is possible with such large forces. The soloists deal well with the extroverted nature of their parts. Fortunately, they don't go over the top. Adriana Gonzalez should have reduced her vibrato, which is too frequent and too wide. Julien Behr and in particular Andreas Wolf are stylistically more convincing. It is disappointing that Niquet omitted the use of a porte-voix. The episode where the solo bass should sing through it, is performed here by basses from the choir, who attempt to suggest the effect of it. Niquet obviously enjoyed the large noise he was allowed to produce. As far as the recording is concerned, there is a little more reverberation than would be ideal.

As a kind of encore, we get a setting of the Marseillaise. It is not mentioned nor discussed in the booklet, whose liner-notes are rather poor anyway. For this review I have gratefully used the liner-notes to the Christophorus recording.

Johan van Veen (© 2021)

Relevant links:

Julien Behr
Adriana González
Andreas Wolf
Le Concert Spirituel

CD Reviews