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Requiems for Louis XVI

[I] Sigismund VON NEUKOMM (1778 - 1858): Requiem à la mémoire de Louis XVI
Clémence Tilquin, sopranoa; Yasmina Favre, mezzo-sopranoa; Robert Getchell, tenora; Alain Buet, baritonea
Choeur de la Chambre de Namur; La Grande Écurie et la Chambre du Roy
Dir: Jean-Claude Malgoire
rec: Jan 23, 2016 (live), Versailles, Château (Chapelle Royale)
Alpha - 966 (© 2016) (61'43")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: E/F
Cover, track-list & booklet

Marche funèbre - Miserere mei Deus; Missa di Requiema

[II] Jean Paul Egide MARTINI (1741 - 1816): "Requiem pour Louis XVI. et Marie Antoinette"
Corinna Schreiter, sopranoa; Martin Platz, tenora; Markus Simon, bassa
Festivalchor Musica Franconia; La Banda
Dir: Wolfgang Riedelbauch
rec: July 23, 2016 (live), Freystadt, Wallfahrtskirche Maria Hilf
Christophorus - CHR 77413 (© 2017) (73'46")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: D
Cover & track-list

Christoph Willibald VON GLUCK (1714-1787): De profundis; Jean Paul Egide MARTINI: Messe de Requiem pour la Pompe funèbre de Louis XVI et de Marie Antoinettea

[III] Luigi CHERUBINI & Charles-Henri PLANTADE: "Requiems pour Louis XVI & Marie-Antoinette"
Le Concert Spirituel
Dir: Hervé Niquet
rec: Jan 21 & 22, 2016 (live), Versailles, Château (Chapelle Royale)
Alpha - 251 (© 2016) (69'14")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: E/F
Cover, track-list & booklet
Score Cherubini

Luigi CHERUBINI (1760-1842): Requiem in c minor; Charles-Henri PLANTADE (1764-1839): Messe des morts in d minor

At about the same time three discs were released with recordings of Requiem Masses for one and the same monarch: Louis XVI. He was the last King of France during the ancien régime, which was put to its end by the Revolution of 1789. In 1792 he lost his crown, when the monarchy was abolished, and on 21 January 1793 he lost his head, when he was guillotined, together with his wife Marie Antoinette.

The republic had a short life: in 1804 Napoleon Bonaparte became 'Imperial and Royal Majesty'. He reigned for just ten years: in 1814 the Allies captured Paris and forced him to abdicate. The next year the remains of the French army, loyal to the emperor, were defeated at the Battle of Waterloo. In the meantime representatives of the main powers of Europe gathered together in Vienna in order to fix a new political order. The outcome of the Congress of Vienna (September 1814 - June 1815) was a partly restoration of what had been. France became a kingdom again, and the dynasty of the Bourbons regained the throne they had lost less than 25 years ago. The new King was Louis XVIII, brother of Louis XVI.

At the Congress of Vienna France was represented by Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand, once Napoleon's top diplomat, who had become increasingly critical of the way Napoleon acted on the international scene. At the Congress he negotiated a favourable settlement for France while undoing Napoleon's conquests. At the time of the Congress various commemorative events took place. In 1814 the Austrian-born composer Sigismund von Neukomm, who had settled in Paris in 1809, entered Talleyrand's service as a player of the keyboard. The Prince asked him to compose a Requiem Mass for Louis XVI. Neukomm did not write an entirely new work, but reworked a mass that he had written two years earlier and dedicated to his three teachers: Joseph and Michael Haydn and the Salzburg organist Franz Xaver Weissauer. The Requiem à la mémoire de Louis XVI was performed in Vienna on 21 January 1815, the anniversary of the execution of the King. For Neukomm the reworking and performance of this work was not just another job. He was a monarchist by conviction; later in his life he mocked the ideals of the Revolution: "Liberty (to do evil) – Equality (in misery) – Fraternity (like that of Cain to his brother): that is the cry of the Republic. Long live the Republic!"

Originally intended for voices in two choirs without instruments one of the manuscripts includes a note, saying that the first choir may be replaced by "four good solo voices", singing "one to each part". It is followed by parts for flutes, oboes, clarinets, horns, bassoons, trumpets, trombones, timpani, violins, violas and basses. This is the line-up in the performance under the direction of Jean-Claude Malgoire, which Alpha recorded in January 2016 in Versailles. The choral episodes are mostly homophonic; the Offertory comes to a fugal ending on the words "quam olim Abrahae". There are no extended solo parts as the four solo voices mostly sing together. As one may expect the Sequence (Dies irae) is the most dramatic part of the work, where the brass and the timpani play a major role. Unfortunately the booklet hardly gives any information about the music. The programme opens with a Marche funèbre, which is followed attacca by Miserere mei Deus, a setting of the opening verses of this penitential psalm. However, it is not entirely clear if or how these two works are connected, and there is no information whatsoever about the reasons why Neukomm wrote them. New Grove doesn't help: the work-list is only a global survey of Neukomm's oeuvre, which is very large and has not been catalogued as yet.

Malgoire has recorded several works by Neukomm previously, and knows how to bring a work like this to life. The performances of choir and orchestra are impressive, and especially the efforts of the brass deserve much praise. The soloists do a good job, but the ensemble is less than ideal due to the vibrato in the women's voices.

The lack of a catalogue of Neukomm's output is an indication that he still takes a marginal place in music life of our time, despite the efforts of in particular Malgoire. His fate is shared by Jean Paul Egide Martini. His name was new to me, but to my surprise he is represented on a large number of discs. However, it is just one song which is recorded over and over again: Plaisir d'amour, a Romance du chevrier, included in a collection of chansons and romances of 1784. He 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. That is one way to put it; 'twister' is such an unpleasant word. 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 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. The most dramatic part is the Dies irae; the episode "Liber scriptus proferetur" is for bass solo, with an obbligato part for trombone. The pathetic "Ingemisco tamquam reus" is for soprano and tenor solo, and ends with the tutti. 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.

Martini's Messe de Requiem is an impressive work, which deserves to be performed in the concert hall. There is more than Mozart's Requiem. And this particular work also makes curious about other parts of Martini's oeuvre. The revolutionarty 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 pretty good. The soloists are mostly satisfying, although Corinna Schreiter now and then uses a little too much vibrato. Markus Simon is impressive in the Dies irae. The orchestra is excellent, but I am less impressed by the choir. It is certainly a good ensemble, but the tutti lack transparency and overall the choral sections are a bit heavy-handed. This could be due to the acoustical circumstances. The picture in the booklet shows that the choir is pretty large, but that seems hardly inappropriate, as the early 19th century is a time when the choirs tended to increase in size. All in all, this disc is very well worth to be investigated.

When Martini died, his position as surintendant de la musique du roi was taken by Luigi Cherubini. He was a very prolific composer, who has become especially known for his operas. His most famous work in that genre is Medée. He also composed many sacred works, and the best-known of these is the Requiem in c minor. It is often written that it was performed on 21 January 1816, but as we have just seen, at that day Martini's Requiem was performed. In fact, Cherubini's Requiem was written for the same ceremony in 1817.

Cherubini arrived in Paris in 1785. Like Martini he became involved in performances of a revolutionary character, like the celebrations of the third anniversary of the death of Louis XVI in 1796. He played a prominent role in music life, but his fortune waned, when Napoleon took power, who had a special liking for Italian music and considered Cherubini's music too French. For some time he was in Vienna where he was received with great honour by, among others, Haydn and Beethoven.

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 in depicting 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.

However, the probably most disturbing and dramatic work of the four Requiems reviewed here is the setting by Charles-Henri Plantade. Originally educated as a cellist (probably by Jean-Louis Duport), he later studied singing, keyboard, harp and composition. At several stages in his career he taught singing at the Paris Conservatoire. From 1806 to 1810 he was maître de chapelle at the Dutch court under Louis Napoleon and his wife Hortense de Beauharnais. In his early years he mostly wrote music for the stage, but after the Restoration he turned to religious music. His Messe des morts in d minor was performed in 1823 at the occasion of the commemoration of the death of Marie-Antoinette, wife of Louis XVI, who was guillotined with her husband in 1793. However, it seems that the work was written before that; therefore it may not have been specifically intended for the commemoration.

This work is a peculiar mixture of old-fashioned elements which were common under the ancien régime, and typical features of the style of the early 19th century. In his liner-notes Hervé Niquet describes the effect of the first rehearsal of this work, that he had never seen before. "Plantade wrote a work brimming over with emotion, very feminine as befits its dedicatee, but also one of ineffable gentleness, unspeakable brutality and respectful sweetness, which left us speechless after the final chords. We were all so astonished after this first rehearsal that we didn't know what had happened to us. For the composer had made use of all the language of the preceding century through the prism of early nineteenth-century technique. It was new and surprising, elegant and athletic, moving but not maudlin."

The vocal scoring is notable: soprano, two tenors and bass. "As a result, the sonority is close to the old motets inherited from the aesthetic traditions of Lully and Rameau", Alexandre Dratwicki writes in the booklet. There are no real solo parts; homophony dominates, but the Kyrie includes a fugue which imitates plainchant. The orchestra once again includes a tam-tam. There is a special effect in the 'Pie Jesu': here he uses "the most modern effect of orchestration in his score: a plaintive moan from the horn on an 'open' chromatic note, producing a disturbing sound that Berlioz must have especially admired." The full dramatic power of this work can be admired in the Dies irae, called here 'Prose'.

These two Requiems receive the best possible performances under the direction of Hervé Niquet. Their dramatic powers are fully explored by the vocal forces and the orchestra. Several recordings on period instruments of Cherubini's Requiem are available, but this performance is probably the best of them all, also because here the Latin text is pronounced the French way, as it was still common practice in the first half of the 19th century.

Anyone interested in music from the early 19th century should add these discs to his collection. In their very own way these Requiems are substantial additions to the repertoire.

Johan van Veen (© 2017)

Relevant links:

Robert Getchell
Martin Platz
Corinna Schreiter
Clémence Tilquin
Choeur de Chambre de Namur
La Banda
Le Concert Spirituel


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