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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Partita in D minor for solo violin BWV 1004 [25:22]
St John Passion: Ach Herr, lass dein lieb Engelein [2:09]
Christ lag in Todesbanden [1:19]
Den Tod niemand zwingen kunnt [1:22]
St Matthew Passion: Wenn ich einmal soll scheiden [1:23]
Gabriel FAURÉ (1845-1924)
Requiem [36:38]
Gordan Nikolitch (violin); Grace Davidson (soprano); William Gaunt (baritone); Tenebrae
London Symphony Orchestra Chamber Ensemble/Nigel Short
rec. live, 7 May 2012, St Giles’, Cripplegate, London
LSO LIVE LSO0728 [68:15]

This disc is a profoundly beautiful and supremely effective meditation on the theme of death and mourning. Part of its power comes in the way it intelligently juxtaposes a number of works that would normally never be heard together. The combination of the Bach chorales and the second partita comes due to Helga Thoene’s now fairly well known thesis about Bach’s weaving of chorale themes into the great Ciaccona that ends the partita. It’s territory that has already been explored very successfully by the Hilliard Ensemble and Christoph Poppen on their Morimur disc on ECM. I won’t go into the details now - they’re explained very clearly in the booklet note, which contains the texts, translations and some musical examples, as well as Professor Thoene’s original text. Suffice to say that Thoene shows how Bach wove into the Ciaccona various themes from chorale texts which consider the theme of death and resurrection. Here we get some of the chorales sung by Tenebrae, interspersed with the movements of the Partita played by Gordan Nikolitch, and then the chorale themes superimposed on top of the violin line for the final Ciaccona. If that all sounds a little academic then don’t be alarmed: one of the strengths of the disc is that you are welcome to delve as deep into that side of things as you like, but you are under no obligation to do so; if you choose simply to listen to the beautiful music then there is plenty of space to do just that.
The singing of Tenebrae is marvellous here. Their blend is nothing short of sensational, and they fit the acoustic of St Giles’ Cripplegate as though it had been tailor made for them. Each of the chorales passes simply but beautifully, every phrase imbued with thoughtfulness and meaning, and their contribution (with reduced numbers) to the Ciaccona is direct and clear without being overdone. Nikolitch’s playing of the Partita is deeply meditative and, for the first movements at any rate, rather withdrawn and tentative, as befits the mood of mourning. His playing becomes more extrovert, growing in stature until the great Ciaccona, which is magnificent.
Comparisons with Morimur will be obvious. The performances are, I think, comparable in terms of quality. However, the Hilliards and Poppen take a deeper academic route into the music, including more chorale examples to illustrate the point. That is not to criticise them; if anything I would encourage the curious listener to go to that disc next after this one if they want to explore more. One advantage that Moriumur has is that Poppen also plays the Ciaccona without the singers, something Nikolitch doesn’t, but perhaps considerations of space played a part here. The double-performance of the Ciaccona, with voices and violin, makes the point very well, though I think most listeners would probably be happier with either violin or voices for repeated listening, and there are plenty of first-rate performances of the Partita alone that allow you to do just that.
The real USP of this disc, however, is that all of this profound soul searching is almost a mere curtain-raiser to what is perhaps the finest recorded performance of the Fauré Requiem I have come across. The listener moves straight from the final note of the Partita into the first chord of the Requiem - which is in the same key - and the effect is both startling and moving. The first chord from the LSO ensemble is majestic and sumptuous, pulsing with emotion and portent, and their chamber size approach works brilliantly, filling the church acoustic with rich, sumptuous sound without ever overwhelming the text. Touches like the horns at the end of the Sanctus or the rich strings of the Agnus Dei work brilliantly, and the organ has been blended into the texture so that it is present and characterful without dominating. Similarly, Tenebrae are the perfect size and shape of choir for this recording, and they mould their sound to meet each aspect of the piece so that there is never any suggestion of a one-size-fits-all approach. They sound rich and fulsome in the opening Requiem aeternam and the Sanctus, but the sound made by the tenors and altos at the beginning of the Offertorio is pale, almost emaciated, as befits the supplicatory nature of the text. A spine-tingling touch of the ethereal characterises the Lux aeterna and the valedictory brightness of the In Paradisum is a delight, setting a sublime seal over the end of the disc. Nigel Short’s pacing of the work is masterful throughout, unfolding the score with affection and the right balance of seriousness and tenderness.
The most recent Fauré Requiem to come my way was that of Accentus on Naïve, which is very fine but rather miserly in its running time, especially as it’s most frequently available at full price. I would now turn to Tenebrae above any other for this work, and it’s helped that the disc as a whole is rather marvellous, exceptionally well performed and very intelligently programmed. That, combined with LSO Live’s superb sound and budget price, makes it a definite winner.
Simon Thompson

See also review by John Quinn