A year following the Bourbon Restoration of 1814, Louis XVIII had the remains of his executed relatives (Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette) re-interred in the crypt of St Denis, the Requiem Mass for the occasion being provided by the king’s Surintendant de la Musique du Roi Luigi Cherubini. Probably around this time, Charles-Henri Plantade, Cherubini’s contemporary, penned a Requiem for Marie-Antoinette, although its first documented performance was not until 1823. In a fascinating recreation on Friday evening, the choir and orchestra of Le Concert Spirituel, under Hervé Niquet, performed both of these works, along with Hector Berlioz’s triptych of funereal meditations, Tristia.
The choir and orchestra displayed a surefooted understanding of the period in their performances, which were all imbued with the richness of early-19th-century orchestration, but which were prevented from becoming over-soupy by the piquancy of the period instruments (the rawer tones of the brass and the solid sonority of the French bassoons were particularly marked). The two Requiems, in particular, were given accounts of gracefully understated grandeur, with their ties to the liturgical imperatives of their commissioning nicely pointed up: the purity of the plainsong by both male and female voices in Plantade’s Dies Irae and Benedictus, the brief, unfussily performed Sanctus and Benedictus in the Cherubini, the subtle development of the material in the single-movement Dies Iraes in both works, and the variations in choral tone to mitigate the absence of soloists.
Of the two, the better-known Cherubini was the more ornamented and melody-driven, and the composer’s earlier life as an opera composer was evident; the Graduale contained a gondola-lilt of Venice, and the charming melody for the ‘sed signifer’ section of the Offertorium was accompanied by delicately frilly strings. Cherubini also employed more in the way of counterpoint, by setting the two appearances of ‘quam olim Abrahae’ fugally. Plantade’s piece was more severe, and of another age – indeed, one might posit that it is the sort of Requiem the young Beethoven might have written had he been a more devoted son of the Church and a less eager experimenter. It contained, nonetheless, one or two surprisingly ‘modern’ moments – the occasional note from a gong (which was also present in the Cherubini) and a strange portamento passage for solo horn in the Pie Jesu. Both composers made inventive use of alternating male and female voices to vary the texture; the three-part male chorus in Plantade’s Offertorium was sung with controlled intensity, and the same movement in the Cherubini offered a beguiling contrast between women’s voices/horn and men’s voices/bassoons.
The three parts of Berlioz’s Tristia written across a period of almost a decade, displayed even more melodic drive, and the choir and orchestra once again gave them a dramatically period feel (albeit that the ‘Hiawatha’ rhythm given out by the hard-stick timpani in Marche Funèbre raised a smile).
Niquet is known for his scholarship of performance-practice, and the disposition of the forces onstage (a shallow arc of orchestra at the back, with the choir seated collegiate-style, facing each other in two blocks in the front-centre) suggested he had researched performance topography, but no explanation of this was given. It resulted in Niquet himself, at the centre of all this, getting the ‘best seat in the house’, and some adaptation might have been made to compensate for the audience layout in the Barbican Hall, as half the choral sound was indistinct for a good percentage of listeners. Niquet’s virtuosic conducting style – full of symmetrical grand gestures – was at odds with the nuanced response it evoked from the performers, and, at times, sadly, resulted in a lack of directional clarity.