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Accentus & Laurence Equilbey
CD 1
Adagio for choir and other choral transcriptions [52:22]
CD 2
Johannes BRAHMS (1833 - 1897)
Ein deutsches Requiem, Op. 45 (London version) (1869) [64:54]
CD 3
Gabriel FAURE (1845-1924)
Requiem, op. 48 (1893) [36:03]
Cantique Jean Racine(1865) [5:18]
CD 4
Pascal DUSAPIN (b. 1955)
Requiem(s) [47:10]
CD 5
Joseph HAYDN (1732-1809)
Les sept dernières paroles du Christ en croix [53:14]
Accentus/Laurence Equilbey.
Original texts and translations included
Full track-listing at the foot of this review
NAIVE V 5301 [5 CDs: 258:00]

Experience Classicsonline


This box assembles five discs from the discography of Laurence Equilbey and her fine choir, Accentus. The first disc of theirs that I encountered for review was an impressive one devoted to Rachmaninov (review). As the discs contained in this box are ones I’d not previously heard I was interested to listen to them. We’ve reviewed most of these discs before and I’ve included links to those reviews in what follows. I’ve also included the catalogue numbers of the original releases in the track listing for ease of reference. The discs have been boxed up in their original packaging so the booklets of notes and texts are retained in full.
 
One thought does strike me, I’m afraid, which is to wonder how much thought has been given to the needs of collectors in putting this box together. To say the least the contents appear rather randomly selected and there doesn’t seem to be any common thread running through the selection - other than the artists themselves. Someone who wants, say, the Brahms and Fauré discs may not want some of the others.
 
The disc that hasn’t been reviewed on MusicWeb International, so far as I can see, is the one that contains the Haydn work. For this the choir is joined by the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin who play on period instruments. Les Sept Dernières Paroles du Christ en Croix, to use the French title employed in the packaging of this French disc, was originally conceived as an orchestral work (1786) which the composer arranged subsequently for various different forces, including, finally, in this choral version, which dates from 1795. What I didn’t know until reading the very interesting booklet note, was that Haydn was only inspired to make this version after hearing, quite by chance, someone else’s attempt to fashion his work into a cantata. The result is a work which inevitably is very serious in tone yet even in a serious work Haydn’s invention still shines through, not least in the orchestral scoring. The vocal writing doesn’t break any startling new ground but it’s always impressive. Laurence Equilbey leads a spirited and impressive performance. Her choir sings very well indeed - as they do throughout all five discs in this box - and she has the services of a good solo quartet while the orchestral contribution is first class. This is an excellent account of Haydn’s very thoughtful work that I’m delighted to add to my collection.
 
Sadly, I can’t say the same of the disc of music by the contemporary French composer, Pascal Dusapin. Virtually all the music on the disc is at a slow or, at best, moderate tempo. The words are well-nigh unintelligible; I think this must be either deliberate or due to the way the composer sets the texts for elsewhere in this box the diction of Accentus is always very clear. The music sounds to me to be wearyingly similar; indeed, in Granum Sinapis (‘Mustard seed’) it wasn’t until the third of the eight sections was reached that I glanced at the CD player and realised I wasn’t still listening to the first section! I’m afraid that despite the skill of the performers - seven instrumentalists from the ensemble Ars Nova are also involved in Dona eis - I’d wearied of this disc long before it ended. Our original review of the disc by Peter Grahame Woolf contains some additional background information about Dusapin and his music. I have absolutely no desire to listen to this disc again.  
The disc devoted to choral transcriptions was the subject of reviews by Neil Horner and Gwyn Parry Jones. The Barber piece is the best known arrangement; the composer himself made it, using his celebrated Adagio. I love the original piece, whether in its string orchestra or string quartet form but I’ve never thought that it really works as a choral transcription. I believe the main problem is that the high-lying climaxes put a strain on the vocal compass of even the best choirs - and Accentus is one of the best. Most of the other arrangements are by Clytus Gottwald (b. 1925). I’ve come across some of his arrangements before and there’s no doubt that, of their type, they seem skilled and effective. The trouble is that I don’t believe they add much, if anything, to the original music. There are, to be sure, some lovely choral textures in his arrangements of the songs by Wolf and Berg. His arrangement of one of Ravel’s Trois poèmes de Stéphane Mallarmé gives us Ravel through a Ligeti prism, which is quite interesting. However, where I part company with him completely is in his arrangement of Mahler’s sublime Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen. Surely the word “Ich” in the title is there for a reason? The vocal line, sung by a lone singer - “Ich” - should stand out from the accompaniment, whether that’s provided by a piano or by orchestra. How can it stand out when everyone involved in the performance is singing? Frankly, it’s nonsense, and the arrangement by Gérard Pesson of the Adagietto from Mahler’s Fifth Symphony is no better. To be honest, well should have been left alone in both cases. There are a couple of arrangements of Chopin piano pieces, made for Accentus, by Franck Krawczyk. I don’t think either of them works particularly well and as for the ghastly pretentiousness of Krawczyk’s note in the booklet, words fail me! Knut Nystedt’s Immortal Bach,on the other hand, is a brilliantly inventive homage to Bach; it’s a pity some of the other pieces on this disc aren’t up to that level of inspiration; Accentus give a splendid performance of it.
 
The performance of Fauré’s Requiem uses the 1893 version for small orchestra and organ. I presume, since his name is mentioned in the very good booklet notes, that the edition by Jean-Michel Nectoux is used, though this isn’t specifically stated in the documentation. The recording was made in the Basilique Sainte Clotilde in Paris and it’s good to hear the church’s Cavaillé-Coll organ, originally built in 1858, making a good contribution to the sonorities. The performance is a good one, if not terribly distinctive. The choir sings very well, as one has come to expect by now. However, I thought that the performance lacked fire in its belly at the admittedly few dramatic points. It all seems very cultivated - a performance without a hair out of place, if you will - but somewhat lacking in tension and feeling, despite the excellence of the execution. The baritone, Stéphane Degout, has a fairly light voice and he gives relaxed, smooth accounts of his two solos. Sandrine Piau is an ethereal soloist in the ‘Pie Jesu’, her voice light and clear, though some might wish, as do I, for a bit more warmth and roundness in the tone.
 
My overall impression is that this is in many ways a beautiful performance of the Requiem and though the catalogue isn’t exactly short of versions of which that could be said I think anyone acquiring this performance will enjoy it. The disc is pretty short measure; the only other item is the lovely Cantique de Jean Racine. This is given in the 1905 version for full orchestra. Personally, I greatly prefer the original version with organ accompaniment; larger forces deprive this little gem of a piece of some of its intimacy. That said, this Accentus performance is very good indeed and I appreciated very much the flowing tempo that Laurence Equilbey sets. One has heard many performances in the past that, due to a stodgy tempo have sounded sanctimonious; this reading is definitely not in that category. Readers may be interested to read either our review by Robert Hugill or the review by Kevin Sutton.
 
The final disc contains Ein deutsches Requiem by Brahms. It’s given in the composer’s own arrangement of the accompaniment for two pianos. This is described as the ‘London version’ because what is believed to be the first known performance took place in the house of a wealthy music lover in London in 1871, two years after Brahms made the piano arrangement at the request of his publisher. I love the Brahms Requiem but I’d not heard this version of the score before. The first time I listened I confess that I was unimpressed: unworthy thoughts of the rehearsal room went through my mind on hearing the piano accompaniment. To anyone who repeats my mistake all I can say is please persevere.
 
In the first place this is not like hearing the work in rehearsal because the accompaniment is not a reduction for one piano for rehearsal purposes. Instead the accompaniment is, in the words of the booklet annotator, “a transformation of the whole work (including the voice parts) into a piano composition in its own right.” Mind you, that statement is slightly undermined by the following comment right at the end of the note; “In this performance those passages of the piano part that are rendered superfluous by the presence of voices are omitted.” This seems slightly strange to me: Brahms presumably didn’t consider what, it seems, is some doubling of the vocal parts to be “superfluous” so why tamper with his own arrangement? I’m unclear, therefore, to what extent Brahms’ arrangement has been modified. What I can say, however, is that after coming to terms with the lack of an orchestra - which I did at the second time of listening - the results are, frankly, revelatory.
 
It’s true that one loses some weight of tone - though not as much as you might imagine - and, of course, one is deprived of orchestral colour. However, the gains in terms of clarity, indeed luminosity of texture, more than outweigh these losses. And after a while such is the skill and sensitivity of the two pianists, Brigitte Engerer and Boris Berezovsky, that I was completely convinced. Once one adjusts to the scale of the performance the results are deeply satisfying and Brahms’s masterpiece emerges in a new light. The chief gain is in intimacy. That’s not to say that the big moments go for naught but, working with a choir of forty - ten to each part - Laurence Equilbey is able to bring the music close to the listener in a way that even the best of the traditional orchestral performances can’t quite achieve. My notes are full of appreciative comments but let me just share a couple. The big fugues that close the second, third and sixth movements all come off remarkably well. The pianos can’t emulate an orchestra, of course - nor do the players try so to do - but what actually happens is that the percussive nature of the instruments drives the music along - for instance in ‘Die Erlöseten des Herrn’ - and not only does one hear the choral parts clearly but every strand in the accompaniment is audible too. I particularly liked the fugue, ‘Herr, Du bist würdig’ and within that passage loved the lyrical way the phrases come across at ‘Denn Du hast alle Dinge erschaffen’. And before we reach that fugue, sample the bite - and especially the running bass in the accompaniment - in the fiery passage, ‘Der Tod ist verschlungen in den Sieg’. At the other end of the scale, as it were, the famous fourth movement, ‘Wie lieblich sind Deine Wohnungen’, emerges with delicacy and luminosity. 
 
The soloists are good. Stéphane Degout may not match some of his more illustrious rivals on disc; for one thing his voice is too light for that, I think. However, within the scale of this performance he makes a pleasing contribution. Generally, Sandrine Piau sings the gorgeous soprano solo well though she blots her copybook a couple of times. I’m almost certain that she snatches a breath after the word “nun” in her very first phrase, ‘Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit’. If she doesn’t then at least the phrase isn’t seamless and she does something similar and to the same words at 3:57. Overall, however, this is one of the most beautiful and consolatory performances of Ein deutsches Requiem that I’ve encountered and I’m delighted that this box has given me the opportunity to hear it. We have carried an earlier review of this disc by Anne Ozorio.
 
So, this box is rather a mixed bag and I’ve discussed each disc in a little more detail than I might otherwise have done in order to give prospective purchaser an idea of what they might be buying. My own view is that the Brahms and Haydn discs are highly desirable acquisitions and, though not a first choice, the Fauré disc also offers much pleasure. The other two discs exert far less appeal to me but if the repertoire is attractive you can invest with confidence for the recorded sound is consistently good, each disc is well documented and, above all, the standard of performance by Accentus is consistently very high indeed.
 
John Quinn  
 
Track-listing 
Adagio for choir and other choral transcriptions
Samuel BARBER (1910-1981) Agnus Dei op.11 [7:11]
Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911) Kein Deutsche Himmel (Adagietto from Symphony no.5) [9:08]
J.S. BACH (1685-1750) Immortal Bach (Komm süsser tod, BWV478) [6:30]
Frideryk CHOPIN (1810-1849) Lacrimosa (Etude op. 10 no.6) [3:56]
Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937) Soupir [3:44]
Hugo WOLF (1860-1903) Das verlassene Mägdlein [3:45]; Auf ein altes Bild [2:28]
Alban BERG (1885-1935) Die Nachtigall [2:23]
Gustav MAHLER Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen [6:04]
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918) Les Angélus [2:27]
Frideryk CHOPIN Lulajze, Jezuniu (Largo, Piano Sonata op.58) [4:39]
Accentus Chamber Choir/Laurence Equilbey
rec. February 2001, Grande Salle, L’Arsenal, Metz, France.
NAÏVE V4965 [52:22]

Johannes BRAHMS (1833 - 1897)
Ein deutsches Requiem, Op. 45 (London version) (1869)
Sandrine Piau (soprano); Stéphane Degout (baritone); Brigitte Engerer and Boris Berezovsky (pianos)
Accentus/Laurence Equilbey.
rec. June and July 2003, Cité de la musique, Paris. DDD.
NAIVE V 4956 [64:54]
 
Gabriel FAURÉ (1845-1924)
Requiem, op. 48 (1893) [36.03]
Cantique de Jean Racine(1865) [5.18]
Sandrine Piau (soprano); Stphane Degout (baritone); Luc Héry (violin); Christophe Henry (organ)
Maitrise de Paris; Accentus; Members of L’Orchestre National de France/Laurence Equilbey
rec. January 2008, Basilique Sainte Clotilde, Paris
NAÏVE V5137 [41.21]

Pascal DUSAPIN (b. 1955)
Requiem(s)
Granum Sinapis (1992-7) [22:18]
Umbrae Mortis (1997) [4:13]
Dona eis* [19:53]
Choeur de Chambre Accentus; *Ars Nova/Laurence Equilbey
rec. February, 2000, Grande Salle, L’Arsenal, Metz
AUVIDIS/NAÏVE MO 782116 [47:10]

Joseph HAYDN (1732-1809)
Les Sept Dernières Paroles du Christ en Croix
Sandrine Piau (soprano); Ruth Sandhoff (mezzo); Robert Getchell (tenor); Harry van der Kamp (bass)
Accentus; Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin/Laurence Equilbey
rec. December 2005, Théâtre de Poissy, France
NAÏVE V 5045 [53:14] 

 


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