For those of you who get a little hot under the collar about CD running times please bear in mind that this 1981 recording dates from the age of steam - or I should say of the LP of happy memory - when about 50 minutes was standard. The fact is that Brilliant Classics are a budget label and this is a classic performance, originally on Archiv, of the still quite rare but attractive and moving Messe des Morts
which is most definitely worth getting to know.
There is something of a poignant story behind it. Gilles wrote the work probably in 1704 for the Cathedral of St. Etienne in Toulouse whose authorities, on its completion, would not pay the composer the full fee. Consequently Gilles pronounced “Then it will be performed by no-one”. Soon after, at the age of only 37, the composer died and the work received its first airing at his funeral. The much better known André Campra, a friend of Gilles, revived the work and, in the 1770s it proved popular receiving several performances including one under massive (Handelian?) forces at the funeral of Rameau, before fading into obscurity until the mid-20th
century. This recording, although not the first, was the first to use period instruments and is, apart from its own intrinsic value of great interest as a result. There has since been a recording by Joel Cohen and the Boston Camerata on Erato but I have not heard it.
I suspect that one of the reasons for the work’s popularity amongst Parisians was the fact that, compared say with Campra’s own requiem or even that of Charpentier, it is quite a jolly piece. To be more precise it is not by any means always slow and gloomy. Tempi, like chorus passages and solo work are varied and the ideas are often arresting.
The work falls into seven sections and as a sort of ‘envoi’ Herreweghe inserted a purely instrumental and curiously jolly ‘Carillon des Morts’ an ostinato piece based on funereal bell-ringing by that slightly shadowy but eccentric figure Michel Corrette.
The first section is the longest, the ‘Introitus’. This has a solemn instrumental opening and the first words ‘Requiem Aeternam’ are intoned by the solo tenor and followed by a happy ‘Lux Perpetua’ for the bass and soprano before the chorus repeat and develop this music. The graceful Kyrie is begun by the tenor before the other soloists including the counter-tenor takes up the ‘Christe eleison’. The final Kyrie is choral. The Graduale begins instrumentally and seriously ‘Grant eternal rest O Lord’ and this movement hails the arrival of the recorders. The chorus burst in at a brighter tempo at the words ‘in memoriam eternam’, dividing the text with the baritone solo. The following ‘Offertorium’ (... deliver the souls of the faithful departed ...) begins instrumentally, again in a minor key, and the bass soloist sings the ‘Libera me’. This is the longest text and the chorus have more to do but the mood is not always minor key and there is harmonic variety. The tenor also reappears as do the recorders and they have a moving duet section. A triple time meter is used for the middle section “But let St. Michael, thy standard bearer”.
The ‘Sanctus’ although rather steady in the tempo of an Allemande, and in a major key, is initiated by the baritone solo before dueting with the bass. Later the chorus arrive with a bright ‘Hosanna’ again in triple time. The Benedictus is set for counter-tenor and tenor duet. For the ‘Agnus dei’ Gilles writes in an elegant major tonality and the baritone leads off before the chorus joins him and ends the movement. The ‘Post communion’ repeats the ‘Lux Aterna’ words and begins with the baritone solo. The choir seem to want to end the work with a melancholic ‘dona eis, Domine’ which should bring proceedings to a beautiful and mournful conclusion, but Gilles launches into the lively triple time repeat of the ‘Et lux perpetua’ before ending on dignified slow chords. I mention all of this to show how well balanced the work is and also to help to understand why it was so popular for a brief time.
Of the Carmelite Church in Ghent I can tell you little. I thought that I had been to all of the ancient churches in that most beautiful of cities, Philippe Herreweghe’s home town, but this church has eluded me and the internet proved of little use. The acoustic, at any rate is magical and helpful.
At bargain price this is a fine catch. I would recommend it to you even if baroque music is not always your bag.