Since, as a youngster, watching Mozart feveredly dictating passages of his last work to the dastardly Salieri in Peter Schaffer’s Amadeus I have been a fan of the Requiem Mass. Whilst reality in the case of the Mozart Requiem was as weird, though not quite the same as Schaffer’s fiction, the drama did play upon a central truth about the Requiem Mass: that, in confronting the most profound question of all—our own mortality—it is a genre that has a special resonance for composers.
When Radio France, the Koussevitsky Foundation and the French Ministry of Culture commissioned Thierry Lancino to write a new work in this genre, they wanted him ‘to renew the tradition of the Requiem’. Like Britten’s clever use of Wilfred Owen’s poetry fifty years ago, Lancino brilliantly achieves this by taking as his starting point the opening of the long Dies Irae text: ‘Dies irae…teste David cum Sibilia’ (Day of wrath…as attested by David and the Sibyl’). This moment, he notes in interview, adds a pagan touch to the Christian poem; the Cumaean Sibyl was granted near eternal life by the god Apollo but, after she refused his love, he denied her eternal youth, her body withering away and shrinking until it was eventually kept in a jar. The Requiem therefore unfolds as ‘as a dialogue between the pagan Sibyl and the biblical David’. The Requiem text is preserved in its original order, but like the Britten, is interspersed with a secondary text, here in Latin, French and Greek—the languages to an extent representing the protagonists—by Pascal Quignard. The twist here is that the libretto explores the idea of David begging for eternal life, whilst the Sibyl begs for death as oblivion, a release from her torment.
The musical language of this splendid new work places it more in the blood and thunder tradition of Verdi and Berlioz than alongside the more positive visions offered by Lancino’s compatriots Durufflé and Fauré. The language is dissonant and challenging and, from the opening tolling bell to the final empty fifth, we are offered little by way of musical solace. One of the most musically striking passages is the Sanctus. Traditionally a moment of luminescence, here heaven and earth do not feel filled with glory but with an ethereal writhing of restless souls. The effect is both marvellous and disconcerting. The flow and interaction between the different planes—the more impersonal writing for chorus (who largely stick with the Requiem text) against the drama amongst the soloists—is expertly controlled throughout by the composer. More than anything, however, the work is about the relationship of the Sibyl to death, most movingly in the Lacrymosa, where her pitiful longing for oblivion appears alongside the lines ‘Dona eis requiem’, (‘Grant them rest’).
Chœr de Radio France, Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France and soloists Heidi Grant Murphy, Nora Gubisch, Stuart Skelton and Nicolas Courjal give white-hot, emotionally charged performances in this recording from Naxos. In particular I would single out mezzo-soprano Nora Gubisch; her portrayal of the desperate plight of the Sibyl is incredibly moving. My only reservation relates to the recording. I believe it to be live and, as such, I don’t mind extraneous noise such as coughing and page-turns, even if there is quite a lot of it here. Sadly, however, someone—the conductor, I suspect—has been caught by the Naxos engineers groaning and moaning throughout. This is a pity, since it really does detract from some of the quieter moments.
Quick New Release Roundup
Björk has released the rest of her iOS apps for her Biophilia album at £6.99 in the UK. They are: Thunderbolt, Sacrifice, Mutual Core, Hollow, Solstice and Dark Matter. I particularly liked Hollow, with its amazing journey into a human body. Some, such as Dark Matter, I clearly haven’t got the hang of yet, since no matter how many times I followed the app instructions I could not make the song advance. I get the feeling too that Björk released the best songs first; there is nothing, for example, to match the wonderful Cosmology that came free with the initial installation. Despite this, however, there’s enough of interest here to justify the price and it remains a recommendation.
Naxos has released a new recording of Nikolai Kapustin’s Eight Concert Etudes and his witty and energetic 24 Preludes in Jazz Style played by Catherine Gordeladze. Berg’s unfinished operatic masterpiece Lulu has just been issued on DVD by DG with singers Patricia Petibon, Julia Juon, Ashley Holland, Paul Groves and the Symphony Orchestra of the Gran Teatre del Liceu under Michael Boder. Also on DG is a six CD release of piano music by Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Webern, Boulez, Nono, Manzoni, Schoenberg, Debussy, Berg and Bartók played by Maurizio Pollini. Nimbus, meanwhile, has released a disk of flute music: inspired by the blind it is entitled The Invisible World and includes recent music by Carl Witt, Yevhen Stankovych, William Boustany (who is also the flautist on the disk) and Houtaf Khoury.
Whilst this falls out of my normal reviewing remit I would also like to make a special mention of the nice people at Present Music, one of the leading new music ensembles in the US. It has done much to promote new music in its home base in Milwaukee and, through its tours, within the rest of the US and internationally. They have also released a number of fine recordings. If you are an aficionado of minimalism especially I urge you to check them out, here.
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