Elegischer gesang, Op.118
Requiem in C minor
Recorded 7-8 May 2006 in Mechanics Hall, Worcester, Massachusetts
Reviewed by: Antony Hodgson
Reviewed: April 2007
CD No: TELARC SACD-60658
Duration: 51 minutes
There has never been a great deal of Cherubini on disc although his overtures were once popular, especially the amazingly Beethoven-like Anacréon. Toscanini championed both Cherubini’s Symphony and this “Requiem” – the first of two – but Martin Pearlman, using period instruments, provides an approach that differs considerably from that of the Maestro, or for that matter from the admirable EMI version by a later Italian conductor: Riccardo Muti.
This gracious work caused some controversy in its day because of the use of a tam-tam stroke near the start of the ‘Dies Irae’ because it was thought “too theatrical” for a liturgical work. Today this noble “Requiem”, written to commemorate the anniversary of the murder of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, can be thought of as representing an early example of a composer venturing into the ‘Romantic’ style of composing.
The work is constructed with symphonic integrity and employs only choral voices; there are no soloists. The composer uses the form wherein the initial ‘Kyrie’ is preceded by the ‘Introit’ (“Requiem aeternam…”), the words of which recur in the following ‘Graduale’. The ‘Dies Irae’ is the most extensive movement and is exceptionally dramatic. Unlike Mozart, Cherubini elects not to commence the section with driving fury but instead chooses to open with a quiet, chilling, indeed threatening sequence. Here in particular, the production team’s decision to record the chorus in a widely spread form enhances the mysterious elements in each sequence as they gradually well up to more full-blooded moments. A subtle switch to the major key in the quiet central section of the ‘Dies Irae’ sheds a brief ray of hope. The music is at its most excitable when the subsequent ‘Offertory’ proceeds toward its full-blooded conclusion. Here Pearlman keeps his forces immaculately balanced, shaping it carefully and sensitively and clarifying the intricate weaving of powerful instrumental and vocal lines. Cherubini’s view of the ‘Agnus Dei’ is to start not with peace but with anguish that gradually resolves at the close of the work in peaceful repose. Altogether a thoughtful and gentle work interpreted in the same spirit by the 40-strong orchestra (including trombones) and 23-strong choir that form Boston Baroque.
The two companion pieces are well chosen. The Funeral March, composed two years later, has an interesting link in the use of tam-tam: not just one, as in the ‘Requiem’, but two. Tam-tam sound precedes the first orchestral entry. Imaginative use of timpani adds to the tension and overall this is a lyrical march with few hints of military rhythmic insistence but many mournful turns of phrase.
Beethoven’s sad, peaceful “Elegiac Song”, composed for combination of vocal and string quartet is here performed with multiple voices and string instruments (but excluding double basses) and achieves a warm, elegant effect.
The whole disc is notable for its beauty of tone. The conductor’s skilled control, especially in the matter of dynamics, is a rewarding feature. It may seem old-fashioned to say that the ‘stereo spread is excellent’ but it does confirm that the SACD system does not compromise the sound on standard CD playback.
- CD-only version on CD-80658