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André CAMPRA (1660-1744)
Messe de Requiem
Choeur et orchestra de La Chapelle Royale/Philippe Herreweghe
rec. Studio 103 de la Maison de Radio-France, 1987
HARMONIA MUNDI HMG 501251 [43:25]

This beautiful recording makes a most welcome return to the catalogue in Harmonia Mundi’s mid-price Gold range. Campra has been hailed by some as the missing link between Lully and Rameau, and he spent much of his career shuffling between the theatre and the church, trying to please both. That, perhaps, explains the theatricality of his Requiem Mass. Very little is known about the work’s conception and genesis, though the booklet notes do a decent job of filling us in on the speculation. Either way, it’s a beauty, and this recording is perhaps the most sensual, sophisticated and French-sounding one of them all.
The opening Requiem aeternam begins by spinning a delicate web of sound that, unusually for a requiem, is in the major key and so speaks more of consolation and devotion than grief. In fact, the work spends by far the majority of its time in the minor key. The most dramatic yet subtle effect of all is kept until the final phrase of the last movement which quietly but poignantly slips into the minor key. It’s ingenious because it is so discrete and so unexpected. The silky smooth strings of La Chapelle Royale seem to caress this music, while the singers of the chorus spin gorgeous skeins of sound, creating a truly sensuous experience, perhaps rather too sensuous for the clergymen of the time. More of an air of mystery sets in with the Kyrie and there is an edginess of the opening of the Offertoire, though pastoral sweetness sets in at Sed signifier sanctus Michael. The Agnus Dei begins for all the world like an operatic aria, with the chorus coming in to give their comment afterwards, and the Lux aeterna is positively upbeat, as if looking forward to that day when perpetual light shines on us.
Herreweghe’s direction is supple and responsive. He keeps the music always moving forward, and not only is he fully aware of the way it is pulled towards both religion and the opera house, but he does a very good job of steering an adroit course between the two. The occasional singing of the soloists is very apt. The trio of men in the Offertoire, for example, sound great, with an haute-contre who sings in a very convincingly authentic style, and the sopranos, who join at Quam olim Abrahae are beautifully sweet. The UK’s own Stephen Varcoe shows up as a very French-sounding bass soloist, and his contributions to the Offertoire and Sanctus, especially his trio with two sopranos, are beautiful indeed. The recorded sound is also just right, creating an acoustic that helps the sound to breathe without being too echoey. Perhaps 43 minutes is a slightly mean timing for an entire CD, but otherwise this gets a lot of praise.
Simon Thompson

Previous review: Jake Barlow