05 Jun 2017

Color and Drama in Two Choral Requiems from Post-Napoleonic France

The Requiem text has brought out the best in many composers. Requiem settings by Mozart, Verdi, and Fauré are among the most beloved works among singers and listeners alike, and there are equally wondrous settings by Berlioz and Duruflé, as well as composers from before 1750, notably Jean Gilles.

(Brahms’s Ein deutsches Requiem is a special case: beloved, and meditating on death and consolation, but using texts directly from various books of the Bible. Other special cases include Britten’s War Requiem and Stravinsky’s Requiem Canticles.) Luigi Cherubini’s two Requiem settings (1816 and 1836) are likewise among his most-performed works, in part because of their acute responses to the Latin text. Unlike all of the aforementioned, though, they are solely for chorus and orchestra, without vocal soloists.

I was sent two CDs of Cherubini’s Requiem No. 1 in C Minor to review, and was immediately struck by how powerful and varied the work is—I hadn’t heard it in years—but also by how attitudes toward musical performance have changed in the 60-plus years that separate the two recordings.

One CD consists of the re-release of a 1952 recording, featuring the orchestra and chorus of the Santa Cecilia Society (Rome), conducted by a youngish Carlo Maria Giulini. The other is a new recording of the same work by a prominent early-music group, Le Concert Spirituel, under its longtime music director Hervé Niquet. The differences in approach are so extreme that one might be forgiven for wondering occasionally if one was hearing a different composition altogether, even though the notes are the same.

My interest in the assignment increased even further when I saw that the Niquet CD included a second setting of the Requiem text, by Charles-Henri Plantade, a composer who was contemporary with Cherubini and who, it turns out, clearly knew Cherubini’s setting.

Cherubini (1760-1842) was trained in his native Italy but spent most of his long career in Paris, writing major operas and ending up as longtime director of the Conservatoire. This C-Minor Requiem for mixed chorus and orchestra was first performed in early 1817 in the Saint-Denis basilica—soon after the beginning of the Bourbon Restoration—at a mass in memory of Louis XVI, the king who had been executed by guillotine in 1793. (The remains of the king and of his wife Marie Antoinette had been moved there the year before.) Cherubini’s C-Minor Requiem was widely performed thereafter throughout the nineteenth century. It was played at Beethoven’s funeral, Schumann and Bruckner admired and studied it, and Berlioz considered it Cherubini’s masterpiece. In his late years Cherubini wrote a second Requiem (in D minor); on that occasion he used men’s chorus and orchestra, as a response to an edict from church authorities forbidding women’s voices at funerals.

The C-Minor Requiem has had several fine recordings, e.g., by Toscanini, Muti, and Boston Baroque. Its strengths—including some subtleties of orchestration, and the marvels of the “Quam olim Abrahae” triple-fugue—have been well described by Michael Steinberg in his Choral Masterworks and by Mark Seto in the book Nineteenth-Century Choral Music (a rich compendium edited by Donna Di Grazia). Unlike some other Requiem settings, the work includes the Graduale (which begins by stating again the words of the opening, “Requiem aeternam,” but then continues differently) and also—like the Fauré Requiem decades later—the “Pie Jesu.” In 1820 Cherubini added a funeral march to open the work and an “In Paradisum” to close it. Christophe Spering included both of these wonderful pieces when he recorded the C-Minor Requiem for the Opus 111 label, and Diego Fasolis included the march but not the motet in his Naxos recording. Giulini and Niquet omit both pieces, as do most other conductors.


Cherubini has a remarkable ability to create continuity across phrases, and this comes across in nearly any decent recording, including these two. Particularly evocative are the final pages, in which (as Steinberg put it) “the chorus repeats ‘luceat eis,’ dominated by deep and solemn tolling C’s in the voices and the orchestra’s lowest and darkest instruments.”

Giulini was thirty-eight when he recorded the C-Minor Requiem. It was his first studio recording of any work. To today’s ears, the choral singing may sound a little provincial: vibrato is prominent and the frequent portamentos can border on swoops. But the contrasts of tempo and dynamics that Giulini imposes always feel motivated by the expressive point of the music and text at that moment. The CD contains only this one work and so gives short measure, ending after 51 minutes. That the Requiem lasts as long as it does derives from the very slow tempi that Giulini often adopts. Some of the tracks are nearly fifty percent longer than the equivalent track in the Niquet recording. I admit to finding Giulini’s performance quite convincing, at least when I listen to it by itself (less so in comparison). The spacious tempos certainly add seriousness and solemnity and bring out the similarities to major choral works of later composers (e.g., Gounod, Verdi, and Bruckner).

Giulini was accustomed to conducting large-scale choral works in large halls, for which large performing forces and slowish tempos were arguably appropriate or even necessary. The brisk tempos that Hervé Niquet and his period-instrument group choose would be appropriate to smaller spaces. Niquet’s recording of both works was made in the royal chapel of the chateau at Versailles. Though the chapel—with all its hard surfaces—is no doubt prone to echo, textures on the recording are very clear.

Under Niquet’s hands, the Cherubini lasts only 35 minutes. The quicker speed for the opening “Requiem” movement certainly drains the music of much of the sorrow that one hears in performances such as Giulini’s or Muti’s. Niquet also does not shape phrases in the standard (traditional/Romantic) manner, e.g., through measures-long crescendos and decrescendos. But there are wonderful compensations. The active accompanimental lines for strings (sometimes with bassoons) register more forcefully here than they do in the Giulini performance, reminding me of the similarly active presence of various sections of the orchestra throughout Cherubini’s opera Médée (or, as it is known in the inauthentic Italian version, Medea). The “Dies Irae” movement maintains great thrust and, despite the quick tempo, never sounds either routine or jaunty. Hearing Cherubini performed this way, the parallels that one draws tend to go back in time, e.g., to Haydn’s masses and oratorios, rather than ahead. Niquet adds a bit of chant before two of the movements, but the text booklet—otherwise very carefully put together—neglects to provide the words for them (nor, even more oddly, does it include the six words of the Benedictus, beautifully set by Cherubini).

Niquet completes his recording with a Requiem setting that is directly parallel to the Cherubini. Charles-Henri Plantade (1764-1839) was best admired in his lifetime as a song composer, but he also was a prominent keyboard accompanist to singers and, for some years, directed the choir at the Chapelle Royale in Paris. This Requiem setting, in D minor, was performed at a commemorative mass in 1823 in the chapel of the Tuileries palace (in Paris), the honoree being Marie Antoinette, who, like Louis XVI, was guillotined in 1793. Alexandre Dratwicki, the “scientific director” (i.e., leading scholarly authority) at the Palazzetto Bru Zane’s Center for French Romantic Music (located in Venice), brought the work to the attention of Niquet, and the Center prepared the performing parts that enabled public performances and this recording. Dratwicki’s booklet essay indicates that Plantade may have composed his D-minor Requiem earlier than 1823 but spruced it up for the occasion. The work received a lavish publication during Plantade’s day, though this apparently did not lead to many further performances.

One wonders why not, since this Requiem, like the Cherubini, requires no vocal soloists and is full of imaginative responses to the text. Plantade seems likely to have studied the Cherubini work: in both of them the tamtam is used sparingly but to well-gauged dramatic effect, and Plantade, like his predecessor, adds the Graduale movement and a Pie Jesu. In both works the lengthy Dies Irae text—all fifty-seven lines of it—is treated as a single movement, with the changing images reflected in alert shifts of mode, phrase length, orchestral figuration, and choral texture. Thus, many vivid phrases that are given extended treatment in other requiem settings (e.g., in Mozart’s and Berlioz’s “Tuba Mirum” settings or Verdi’s “Ingemisco” tenor aria) pass by rather quickly.

Dratwicki’s essay draws attention to a remarkable moaning horn solo (in Plantade’s “Pie Jesu” movement, in G minor) on the notes D-Db-D. The score specifies that the three notes be performed “open” (i.e., not stopped with the fist in the bell) and that they be slurred together. The hornist here interprets the slur, I think rightly, as indicating as eerie portamento between the notes. This short, keening solo—heard four times—suggests the soul of a dead person yearning for rest. If Berlioz knew the Plantade Requiem (perhaps from its score), he would surely have been fascinated by this moment. As is well known, in the 1830s and ’40s Berlioz would write notable wind solos that sound like offstage personae or perhaps “calls from afar”: the oboe representing an offstage shepherd in Symphonie fantastique, mvt. 3; the clarinet’s truncated statement of the idée fixe in Symphonie fantastique, mvt. 4; the flute glissando in Symphonie fantastique, mvt. 5; the shreds of tune from a clarinet in Lélio (the “Aeolian Harp” movement); and the desperate oboe phrases in the “Ride into the Abyss” in La damnation de Faust.

Other notable features of the Plantade include a choral layout that was clearly influenced by eighteenth-century French traditions: women all singing together, high tenors (hautes-contre), tenors, and basses. (Cherubini uses the standard Italianate SATB layout.) The men have a vividly stern passage—sung with grim, intentionally wiry tone—on the words “Libera animas omnium . . . de profundo lacu” (Deliver their souls . . . from the bottomless pit). At one point in the “Dies irae” movement, Plantade quotes, in full, the opening three phrases of the well-known “Dies irae” chant, harmonizing and accompanying them in his own style. The effect is as startling, in its way, as Berlioz’s and Liszt’s uses of the same tune in, respectively, the Symphonie fantastique (mvt. 5: “Dream of a Witches’ Sabbath Night”) and Totentanz (“Dance of Death”).

In both Requiem settings on this CD, I noticed a few moments where the music seems mismatched to the text. Why did Cherubini use the major mode to set the words “Mors stupebit” (i.e., even Death will be struck dumb in astonishment)? Why did Plantade create a fierce minor-mode outburst on the words “Hosanna in excelsis” (i.e., all praise to God in the highest realms) that end the Sanctus? Overall, though, these are two remarkably satisfying settings of the Requiem text, and are well worth getting to know—and, I bet, to sing!

Niquet’s chorus is small: twenty-six singers are named in the booklet. In both works, the chorus shows focused tone and excellent pitch. The performance follows many of the accepted practices of what is often nowadays called Historically Informed Performance (“HIP”). For example, the chorus gives nice biting accents to certain words and phrases. The strings play nearly without vibrato, sometimes doing a quick, “squeezed” crescendo or decrescendo on one note after another, a practice that, in many HIP recordings, can seem a mannerism but here works just fine. The tuning is lower than A=440.

One oddity: the Latin pronunciation follows the best scholarly evidence about how the language was pronounced in France during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. (Crucial guidelines are provided in Sébastien de Brossard’s music dictionary of 1703.) “Jesu” is not Yeh-zoo—as in Italianate usage—but, more or less, Zhay-zyoo, and “ejus” is eh-zhyoos. Vowels followed by an “m” or “n” become nasalized, so the “m” or “n” vanishes. In this latter regard, words that sound something like cadohtt, tremodae, profodo, and sapiternam may at first—at least to the ear of someone who is not a native French-speaker—be difficult to recognize as indicating cadant, tremendae, profundo, and sempiternam. But we can learn new listening habits, right?

All in all, Niquet’s recording exudes an air of careful authenticity and highly communicative specificity, and I have grown to like it a lot, not least the determined Frenchness of the pronunciations. All too many performances nowadays—instrumental, especially, but also vocal—are devoid of regional, personalized, or closely observed period flavor. I’m delighted when a recording comes along that insists on having its own particular character, is performed at a very high level, and brings us a major work that has never been recorded before. Plus, the Cherubini—a work of high artistry—here sounds as good as it ever has, and perhaps in some ways better.

If you’re curious, you can hear excerpts from Niquet’s recording of both works here and the Kyrie from the Plantade here.

Ralph P. Locke

Ralph P. Locke is emeritus professor of musicology at the University of Rochester’s Eastman School of Music. He has written extensively on music and musical life in France and the United States, including the religious works of Hector Berlioz (in the Cambridge Companion to Berlioz, ed. Peter Bloom) and French symphonies (in The Nineteenth-Century Symphony, ed. D. Kern Holoman). The above review is a lightly revised version of one that first appeared in American Record Guide, and appears here by kind permission.