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Requiems for Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette
Luigi CHERUBINI (1760-1842)
Requiem in C minor [37:35]
Charles-Henri PLANTADE (1764-1839)
Requiem Mass in D minor [30:56]
Le Concert Spirituel, Hervé Niquet (conductor).
rec. 21-22 January 2016, Chapelle Royale du Château de Versailles
ALPHA CLASSICS 251 [69:14]

Hot on the heels of one Requiem inspired by a change in direction in the French political climate, come two more. Indeed, while the forces recording these two Requiems are different from those which recorded the Requiem by Sigismund Neukomm (review), the recording of the Neukomm was made in the same venue and on the very next day to these by Cherubini and Plantade. The sound was pretty sumptuous in the Neukomm disc, and it is equally so here, fully capturing the rich acoustic warmth of this historic regal cloister.

Neukomm had, at the behest of Congress of Vienna, hurriedly rearranged an earlier Requiem Mass (intended to honour the memory of the Haydn brothers) as a memorial to King Louis XVI, beheaded at the height of the French Revolution and given a kind of posthumous re-elevation in 1815. Not to be outdone by this Austrian-born protégé of Prince Talleyrand or allow Versailles to be overshadowed by events in Vienna (where the Neukomm Requiem was performed on the 22nd anniversary of Louis XVI’s execution), Cherubini, who had only recently been appointed Superintendent of the Royal Chapel, clearly felt he should contribute a Requiem of his own for Versailles’ own commemoration on the anniversary of Louis XVI’s execution (some sources suggest this was in 1817, while the booklet with this disc states that it was in 1816). Whether Cherubini wrote an entirely new work or, as the booklet notes suggest, reused material from one drafted as early as 1808, the work is a curious mixture of almost routine sacred music, typical of Cherubini’s craftsmanlike but uninspired approach to composition, and moments of powerful drama such as the appearance of the tam-tam in the Dies irae – uncannily prescient of Verdi – and the strangely ominous mood of the Agnus Dei with its eerily monotone ending. The choral writing follows the Italian SATB style, not commonly in use then in French, and dispenses with soloists.

Far more arresting throughout – there is a dramatic crash of the gong heralding the voices’ first entry of the Introit as well as, in the closing Agnus Dei an absolutely astonishing bit of pitch-bending from a horn - is the Requiem by Charles-Henri Plantade. A colleague of Cherubini (both were associated with the Paris Conservatoire, and both assisted in the music for the Coronation of Charles X) Plantade was invited at short notice to provide a Requiem to be sung in the Chapel of the Tuileries in 1823 marking the 30th anniversary of the execution of Marie-Antoinette. Plantade had already completed a Requiem in D minor which remained unpublished at the time, and this was used for the Marie-Antoinette memorial. The thrilling opening to the Dies irae must have been a source of huge admiration for Berlioz, who had just arrived in Paris, and while the choral writing follows the archaic French tradition of three male voices and a single soprano line, providing a clear link with the traditions of Lully and Rameau, the music is far more forward-looking and adventurous than the Cherubini Requiem.

Hervé Niquet directs his forces with tremendous verve and consummate timing, extracting every last drop of drama from these two very different yet deeply intriguing scores. Le Concert Spirituel (comprising orchestral and choral musicians) respond vividly, the female voices intoning the occasional passages of unadorned plainchant in both works with exceptional sensitivity. These exquisite performances make this disc far more than just a celebration of a unique moment in French political history; it presents an invaluable glimpse into an area of the repertory which is generally overshadowed by what came before, what came after and what was going on in other European centres.

Marc Rochester

Previous reviews: Brian Wilson ~ John Quinn



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