Thierry LANCINO (b. 1954)
Requiem (2009) [72:09]
Heidi Grant Murphy (soprano); Nora Gubisch (mezzo-soprano); Stuart Skelton (tenor); Nicolas Courjal (bass); Choir and Philharmonic Orchestra of Radio France/Eliahu Inbal
rec. live 7 & 8 January 2010, Salle Pleyel, Paris
NAXOS 8.572771 [72:09]

Thierry Lancino is a French composer who currently lives in the United States. His Requiem was the result of a joint commission from Radio France, the Koussevitsky Music Foundation and the French Ministry of Culture. This recording was made at the first performance, and given that successive days are indicated, the concert was perhaps followed by a patching session. There are a few audience noises, but nothing to disturb the listener, and there is no applause at the end. The recording is very fine, comfortably accommodating the vast forces whilst at the same time allowing for the intimacy required when those forces are sparingly employed. The performance of this monstrously difficult work is heroic and astonishingly fine.

Thierry Lancino’s website is highly professional, and the Requiem is accorded great prominence there. There is much information, and, remarkably, a pdf of the full score available for download. The score is huge, however, and following or studying it on screen is a frustrating affair. Press notices are quoted extensively, all positive.

Benjamin Britten’s inspired decision to insert non-liturgical texts into his War Requiem may or may not have been the first such venture, but many composers have followed his lead. Thierry Lancino has focussed on the phrase “Dies irae, dies illa, teste David cum Sibylla”. David prays for life beyond the grave, whereas the Sibyl, a pagan prophetess who has been granted eternal life but not eternal youth, longs for the death she cannot attain. The author of the excellent booklet notes, Ben Finane, might be accused of over-egging the pudding when he writes that “This explosive paradox has been laying in this verse for seven centuries without having been challenged”, but it is certainly this that gives Lancino’s Requiem its individual viewpoint. The text, in French, Latin and Greek, is drawn from the Mass for the Dead, as well as from other liturgical sources, with original material by Pascal Quignard.

Four soloists are used. The role of the Sibyl is played by a mezzo-soprano, and David by the tenor, as well as by the bass when David’s profile as a warrior is evoked. The soprano is Everyman. Most of the liturgical text is presented by the chorus.

The opening of the work – thirteen identical drum and bell strokes – is unpromising. You might not be too encouraged by the following passage either, in which the Sibyl introduces herself and describes her sorry state. The French text is difficult to discern, and since the vocal line is declamatory rather than melodic – of which more later – if one has no idea what she is on about then there isn’t really very much left. (The words, with translations, are available on the Naxos website, though not at the address indicated on the CD box.) The “Kyrie” follows, dramatic choral clusters – women’s voices in eight parts! – followed by calm diatonic chords to the words “Requiem aeternam, dona eis, Domine”. In the third section the two Davids present words from Psalm 18, and whilst the orchestral writing as well as the presence of the chorus later in the passage creates a powerful atmosphere, it seems perverse to employ solo singers only to have them intone so much of the text on, or obsessively around, single notes. The following “Dies irae” is violently rhythmic, with so much going on when the bass soloist joins in that he will make himself heard only with difficulty. This is highly exciting music, however, and the Sibyl’s return to remind us that she wants to die is, for this listener, unwelcome. Powerful, driven motor rhythms characterise the following “Mors stupebit”, and lead to massive choral and brass chords for “Rex tremendae majestatis”. These are interrupted by Everyman, demanding salvation; she then sings the following “Ingemisco” accompanied only by cellos. The writing for the solo soprano is more varied than hitherto, but there seems little reason to sing something rather than simply reciting it if the sung notes do not fuse with the text: that seems to me not to be the case here. Let me mention, in passing, an almost imperceptible groaning noise that occurs from time to time during the performance, audible in this passage where so little else is occurring. Other strange noises, deliberate and highly effective this time, introduce the “Confutatis”, the singers against a wind and brass-heavy orchestra. And pity the poor chorus when the orchestra gives so little help in finding the notes. They seem to succeed remarkably well, witness, no doubt to long and painful preparation under chorus masters Matthias Brauer and Sébastien Boin. The appearance of the tenor after this vivid music introduces a passage of genuine and striking beauty which continues into the “Lacrimosa”. An interesting and affecting view of the text, this, with tears that comfort rather than disturb the listener. The “Offertorium” is sung by the chorus, and as a one-time choral singer and now choral director myself, I do wonder how they coped, and how much pleasure they derived from it. Goodness knows how the men, singing in six parts, are meant to find their opening notes, and each voice chants the words thereafter to lots of held and repeated notes. My admiration for the choral trainers is magnified and underscored by the fact that I wouldn’t have wanted the job!

A long passage for the Sibyl, supported by the chorus, follows: dramatic and powerful, it doesn’t add much to what we already know of her. There are arresting sounds in plenty in the soprano/tenor/chorus “Sanctus”, with the percussion writing particularly colourful, contributing to the work’s prevailing metallic, rather pagan sound. The bells in the wordless vocalise that opens the following “Song of David” reminded this listener of the “Sanctus” from the War Requiem. You won’t go away humming the tune of this particular “song”, and nor will you do so after the “Agnus Dei”. Women’s voices begin this, later joined by men’s voices, and later still, in what must be one of the chorus masters’ scariest moments, by the orchestra. Full marks to them all, though, as they are very nearly in tune when the instruments enter. But now I must nail my colours firmly to the mast. In this passage, and in the closing “Dona eis requiem”, as well as elsewhere in this imposing, important and serious work, I can hear in the vocal writing hardly a single memorable or distinctive note.

William Hedley

A stunning performance of an important new choral work, but atmosphere outweighs memorability in the vocal writing