Requiem masses for murdered royalty

Requiem masses for murdered royalty
Le Concert Spirituel, Hervé Niquet
Barbican. 25 January 2019

Plantade Requiem in D minor, in memory of Marie-Antoinette
Berlioz Tristia
Cherubini Requiem in C minor, in memory of Louis XVI


Le Concert Spirituel and their founder-director Hervé Niquet brought the programme of their 2017 recording of the Plantade and Cherubini Requiems to The Barbican, together with Berlioz’s rarely performed Tristia, a sequence of three ‘sad pieces’ published in 1852 from three short pieces composed in 1831, 1842, and 1844. An unusual, but interesting programme with music that, perhaps because of the nature of the pieces, was compelling, but never really reached the heights of musical perfection. Cherubini’s Requiem was the first to be performed, in 1817, shortly after the restoration of the monarchy and in memory of Louis XVI. It was followed in 1823 by Plantade’s Messe des morts on the 30th anniversary of the death of Marie-Antoinette. Plantade knew Marie-Antoinette and Louis XVI, and there are elements of the earlier musical style of their court in his Requiem together with the style of the music of the Revolution. As with the Cherubini, there are no solo voices. Both works are intended for liturgical performance.

Sensibly, the Requiem in memory of Marie-Antoinette by Charles-François Plantade came first, allowing us to appreciate it without having to compare with the better-known Cherubini Requiem. Both works fall in that unfortunate gap between Mozart and Berlioz in terms of Requiems, and both suffer in comparison, as did Plantade’s with Cherubini. The former makes interesting use of orchestral colour and texture, notably with some striking passages for the horns. One such comes in the Pie Jesu where the horn slithers up and down a chromatic semitone, the tone, of course, changing en route. Both composers make effective use of a large tam-tam, a type of untuned gong. Whether in respect for Marie-Antoinette, the lack of any signal from the conductor, or because the audience was not following things, there was no applause at the end, An awkward pause led to the first two of the three movements of Berlioz’s Tristia. Not his greatest works, but with signs of his later use of orchestral colour. 

La mort d’Ophélie (The death of Ophelia) is based on the description of Ophelia’s drowning in Act IV of Hamlet. Originally written for voice and piano (in 1842) it was revised in 1848 for female choir and orchestra. The Méditation religieuse (Religious Meditation) is a setting of a poem by Thomas Moore for six-part chorus and small orchestra. The second half opened with the Marche funèbre pour la dernière scène d’Hamlet (Funeral March for the final scene of Hamlet), composed for a stage performance of Hamlet. The staging never happened, so Berlioz didn’t hear it performed.

We were on more familiar territory with the Cherubini, an altogether superior work to the that of his contemporary Plantade, not least in the wider range of emotional strength and drama. But it still fell into the gap between Mozart and Berlioz/Verdi. Perhaps this transition period is on a hiding to nothing in comparison with the full-blown Romantic era and the earlier Classical period. 

I assume that the size of the orchestra and vocal forces was based on knowledge of the original performances, although they sounded rather underpowered in the Barbican Hall. The stage layout certainly didn’t help. The choir was divided ‘collegiate’ style, with the women on the left and men on the right, all in front of the orchestra. Firstly this blocked out the direct sound from several of the instruments for anybody not sitting in the front centre of the stalls. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, it gave a greater focus to the part of the choir that was facing you, in my case, the women, with the men singing away from me.  There was no suggestion in the programme notes that this wide-spaced ‘collegiate’ arrangement represented the original format for either of the two Requiems. I seems very unlikely, given the layout of French (as opposed to Italian or Spanish) churches, It certainly wouldn’t have been the case for the Berlioz.

An interesting, if not entirely successful evening.