Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Chorale - Ach Herr, laß dein lieb Engelein [2:09]
Partita in D minor for solo violin, BWV 1004 (1720) - Allemande [3:29]
Partita - Courante [2:10]
Chorale - Christ lag in Todesbanden [1:19]
Partita - Sarabande [3:32]
Chorale - Den Tod niemand zwingen kunnt [1:22]
Partita - Gigue [3:03]
Chorale - Wenn ich einmal soll scheiden [1:23]
Partita - Ciaconna (ed. Prof. Helga Thoene) [13:08]
Gabriel FAURÉ (1845-1924)
Requiem, Op. 48 (1893 version, ed. John Rutter) [36:40]
Gordan Nikolitch (violin); Grace Davidson (soprano); William Gaunt (baritone); James Sherlock (organ)
Tenebrae; London Symphony Orchestra Chamber Ensemble/Nigel Short
rec. live, 7 May 2012, St. Giles’, Cripplegate, London. DSD
Original texts and English translations included
LSO LIVE LSO0728 [68:15]
For best results this disc is designed to be heard straight through from start to finish. It preserves a programme devised for the 2011 City of London Festival by Ian Ritchie, the Festival director, and Gordan Nikolitch, the long-serving Leader of the LSO. First performed in St. Paul’s Cathedral, the concert was given again the following year in the more intimate surroundings of St. Giles’, Cripplegate. The LSO Live microphones were there to record it.
I should say straightaway that this CD includes one of the best recordings of Fauré’s Requiem that I’ve heard. There’s also some superb Bach playing by Gordan Nikolitch but one aspect of the project may be controversial.
In 1720 Bach, who was then in the service of Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Köthen, returned home from accompanying his master on a three-month visit to Karlsbad to find that his wife, Maria Barbara, who he had left in good health, had died suddenly. The scholar, Prof. Helga Thoene believes that the D minor Partita, and especially its extraordinary concluding Ciaconna, was written in response to Bach’s grief at the passing of his wife of some thirteen years. Examining the Partita and its companion Sonata in A minor for solo violin, BWV 1003, she believes that both are “based on inaudible chorale quotations”. In a long and detailed booklet essay, which I won’t attempt to summarise here, she states her theory that the chorale melodies “employed as cantus firmi can be made audible by prolonging the notes of the violin part with the aid of additional instruments or voices.” This theory is put into practice in this performance of the Ciaconna. Following through the premise that the Partita represents a tombeau or epitaph for Maria Barbara Bach, the remainder of the programme has been constructed around the theme of death.
So, as can be seen from the track-listing, the first four movements of the Partita are interspersed with Chorales, sung by Tenebrae. I find this works pretty well and if one doesn’t like the approach one can always skip those tracks and concentrate on Gordan Nikolitch’s splendid performance of the solo violin music. He’s searching in the Allemande and his playing in the following Courante is lively. In the sprightly Gigue he delivers some exceptionally clean and agile playing.
Controversy may arise with the conclusion of the Partita. In the Ciaconna a small semi-chorus of eight singers - two per part - sing fragments of lines from a variety of Chorales. All the texts are given in the booklet. Nikolitch plays and thus you can hear Prof. Thoene’s theory in action. Does it work? Despite listening several times with, I hope, as open a mind as possible, I don’t think it does. It’s an interesting theory and I bow to Prof. Thoene’s expertise as a Bach scholar. However, even if Bach did indulge in the musical cryptography as she postulates, surely he didn’t mean the code, when cracked, to be performed - and certainly not as an accompaniment to the violin part? Bach pitted his soloist against the intellectual rigour of the music - and assuredly it is rigorous - but never intended the player to be pitted against an accompaniment. Furthermore, if Bach had indeed written an accompaniment to the solo part it surely would not have been one in which the notes were sustained in the way that a choir sings. The members of Tenebrae sing their lines beautifully and with discretion but I’m afraid that, though the experiment is an interesting one, I’m unsure it bears repeated listening. I found the vocal contributions a distraction from Gordan Nikolitch’s very fine playing and from Bach’s argument. What might have been interesting would have been the inclusion of a separate track of Nikolitch playing the Ciaconna in its standard form so that one could then have this option and still hear the Partita and the chorales as an imaginative prelude to the Fauré Requiem.
The Fauré begins in the same key - D minor - as the Ciaconna. In this performance the powerful opening chord follows the Bach without a break, though it’s separately tracked so you can listen to the Requiem in isolation if you wish. It’s something of a jolt to move so suddenly from Bach to Fauré but I find it works well. As I indicated above, the performance of the Requiem is an exceptionally fine one. John Rutter’s edition of the score, made in 1983, is used and throughout the LSO Chamber Ensemble and organist James Sherlock provide distinguished playing.
The singing of Tenebrae is flawless. The choir numbers twenty-four singers (8/4/6/6) and the choir’s timbre, balance and precision of ensemble is superb. For instance, in the Offertoire we hear the duet between the alto and tenor parts as perfectly balanced as you could wish. The sopranos bring an ethereal beauty to the Sanctus - with Gordan Nikolitch, now rested after the Bach, contributing a violin line of rapt purity. Purity is the watchword, too, in the In Paradisum movement. Here the sopranos float Fauré’s line tenderly and very beautifully. The soloists, both members of Tenebrae, are excellent. Baritone William Gaunt offers a good, clear and unaffected performance of his solo in the Offertoire. If the word “unaffected” seems like faint praise that’s not the intention; some baritones try to be over-expressive in this work. I much prefer the sort of straightforward, musical approach heard here. Grace Davidson’s singing won’t please those who like to hear a full-toned soprano sing the Pie Jesu with a fair degree of vibrato. However, those who, like me, value purity of tone and simplicity of utterance in this lovely solo will find her very much to their taste. I enjoyed her poised and pure singing.
Nigel Short directs a fine and expressive performance. If I were being hyper-critical then I would have preferred him to maintain the same speed in the Agnus Dei rather than the marginal, unmarked, slowing that he makes at ‘Lux aeterna’. However, that’s a very minor point in the context of an excellent account. Although performances of this work with a large choir and full orchestra have their place my own preference is for this reduced scoring which allows one to experience the intimacy of the piece to best advantage. This Tenebrae version is one of the very best recordings of the 1893 score that have come my way.
The performances are presented in excellent sound; I listened to the disc as a conventional CD. The documentation is very thorough and my only complaint is that LSO Live continues to use a minuscule typeface for their booklets. I truly found that reading the booklet strained my eyes and Prof. Thoene’s detailed note on the Bach is densely argued; it’s even more difficult to follow her argument if one is struggling to make out the words in the first place.
The concept of the programme is imaginative and thoughtful and despite my reservation about the Ciaconna movement of the Bach Partita I found this a stimulating experience. The conjunction of Bach and Fauré works very well. As I hope I’ve conveyed, the performances are superb.
John Quinn
An exceptionally fine Fauré Requiem though other aspects of this programme may be more controversial.