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"Flemish Requiem"

cantoLX; Ensemble de la Chapelle Saint-Marc
Dir: Frank Agsteribbe

rec: Sept 27 - 29, 2018, Ghent, Kapel Terhagen van de Zusters van Liefde
Et'cetera - KTC 1642 (© 2019) (73'43")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - no translations
Cover & track-list

Pierre-Hercule BRÉHY (1673-1737): De profundis; Libera me; Missa pro defunctis; Joseph-Hector (?) FIOCCO (1703-1741): Commendationes (Memento mei); Missa pro defunctis

[cLX] Véronique Nosbaum, soprano; Jonathan De Ceuster, alto; Peter de Laurentiis, tenor; Jean-Paul Majerus, bass
[ACSM] Mechthild Blaumer, Davide Monti, violin; Kaat De Cock, viola; Jean Halsdorf, cello; Lode Leire, double bass; Jeroen Billiet, Bart Cypers, horn; Frank Agsteribbe, organ

In the course of history numerous Masses have been composed. In comparison, the number of settings of the Requiem is rather limited. Edward Wickham, in the liner-notes to his recording of Pierre de La Rue's Requiem (Gaudeamus, 2005), states that the Requiem "was not a liturgy restricted to funeral services. One of the most common strategies of evading - or at least expediting - the soul's sojourn in Purgatory was to leave financial provision for the intoning of Requiem masses on the death day of the sinner in question; and just in case the Almighty was not paying attention the first time bequests would often specify several recitations, one after the other." However, polyphonic Requiem settings seem to have been intended only for specific occasions. This explains why there are not that many settings from the Renaissance that have come down to us. It is unlikely that this was any different in later ages.

The present disc includes two settings from the Southern Netherlands, written during the first half of the 18th century. Stefanie Beghein, in her liner-notes, writes that this is rather surprising. After 1650 the urban elite showed little interest in music for funeral use. "[It] had become fashionable to shun the traditional Catholic burial services around 1700: a stille zinking, a quiet deposition of the coffin, without any polyphonic musical accompaniment, had become the preference of a large part of the wealthy and less wealthy middle classes at that time. (...) Similar reports came from other regions of Europe during the 18th century (...)." It is also quite likely that the Requiem Masses that were written, were used more than once. A telling example is the Messe des morts by the French composer Jean Gilles (1668-1705), which was performed at the composer's own funeral, and then at the funerals of André Campra in 1744, Joseph-Nicolas-Pancrace Royer in 1756, Jean-Philippe Rameau in 1764 and Louis XV in 1774.

One of the Requiem Masses included here is by a composer with the name of Fiocco. No Christian name is mentioned at the manuscript, and as there were three with that name, it is not clear who may be the composer of this work.

Pietro Antonio Fiocco (1653-1714) was from Venice and his presence in Brussels is documented as early as 1682. For most of his life he was in the service of Maximilian Emanuel, Elector of Bavaria, who became governor of the Southern Netherlands in 1692. Pietro Antonio was responsible for the performance of theatrical music and also composed sacred music. Until his death in 1714 he occupied two positions: maître de musique de la chapelle royale de la cour and a similar position at Notre-Dame du Sablon. The second Fiocco was Jean-Joseph (1686-1746), who became maître de chapelle at Notre-Dame du Sablon and at the ducal chapel following his father's death in 1714. His younger (half-)brother Joseph-Hector (1703-1741) first served the ducal chapel under Jean-Joseph and became sous-maître in 1729 or 1730. In 1731 he settled in Antwerp, where he took up the position of choirmaster at the Cathedral, as successor to Willem de Fesch, who had moved to England. In 1737 he returned to Brussels, where he succeeded Pierre Hercule Bréhy as choirmaster of the collegiate church of St Michel and Ste Gudule. He died at the young age of 38.

It is mostly Joseph-Hector who is considered the composer of this Requiem. However, there is no archival evidence that he ever wrote a Requiem Mass during his time in Antwerp, where it has been preserved. Moreover, there is little similarity in style between this piece and other compositions from Joseph-Hector's pen. It is reminiscent of the style of the 17th century, which suggests that Pietro Antonio may be the composer. However, the instrumental scoring includes two horn parts, which is highly unusual in Requiems of the time. They don't play a very prominent part, except in the Tuba mirum (Dies irae) and the Hosanna, where they introduce the entrance of the voices. Interestingly, Bréhy, the other composer on this disc, experimented with the use of horns in a Mass in 1729, and it has been suggested that he may also be the composer of this Requiem.

That would be quite remarkable, as the other Requim Mass on this disc is definitely from his pen. Considering the lack of demand for Requiems, the composition of two such works by the same composer seems rather unlikely. Moreover, his Requiem, in which the voices are supported by strings and basso continuo alone, is stylistically clearly different from the one attributed to Fiocco. Whereas the latter includes few solo episodes, which are rather modest in nature, the solos in Bréhy's Requiem are more extended and technically more demanding. Fiocco's Requiem is a nice work, but Bréhy's is more expressive and goes deeper in the musical exploration of the text. Moreover, some verses are in plainchant, which does not play any role in Fiocco's setting.

Bréhy's motets included here attest to the expressive qualities of his oeuvre. De profundis is a striking example. It opens with the strings playing in their lower tessitura, and then the bass enters with the first line of this psalm, which is sung twice; notable is the ascending figure on "clamavi". Then the entire ensemble enters: the word "si" (Si iniquitates observaveris - If thou, Lord, shouldest mark iniquities) is followed by a general pause. The motet ends with the opening words of the Requiem. The other motet, Libera me, has an alternatim texture; it ends with the Kyrie.

The last work is by one of the Fiocco's, and once again it is not clear which of the three is the composer. It seems to include some dramatic elements, but it is impossible to check, as the producers decided not to include its lyrics in the booklet. The texts of the two motets by Bréhy are also missing, but they can be easily found on the internet.

This is a remarkable disc. Firstly, because these two composers seldom appear on disc, and live performances are also rather rare, except probably in Belgium. Secondly, the fact that these two composers are little known does not tell us anything about the quality of their music. The pieces included here are such that one would wish that they were performed more often. The recording of these two Requiems and the additional motets is well deserved. Thirdly, the performances are pretty much ideal. Whether a performance with four voices, without additional ripienists, is in line with the historical circumstances, is something I don't know anything about. However, there is every reason to be happy with the way they treat the music, individually in the solo episodes, and together in the tutti, where their voices blend perfectly. The instrumental contributions are also first class.

The liner-notes are informative, but a bit one-sided, as they tell us next to nothing about Bréhy and his music recorded here. The omission of the lyrics of the motets is also regrettable. That should not prevent anyone from purchasing this disc and listening to some very fine music of the early 18th century.

Johan van Veen (© 2019)

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