Luigi Cherubini's Powerfully Expressive Requiem In C Minor is Centerpiece of New Recording by Martin Pearlman and Boston Baroque
Featuring Beethoven's sublime and transcendent Elegiac Song, Op. 118.
"If I were to write a Requiem, Cherubini's would be my only model." – Ludwig van Beethoven
Martin Pearlman and Boston Baroque add another and especially rare jewel to their distinguished Telarc discography with the release on January 23, 2007, of Luigi Cherubini's Requiem in C minor (1816), paired with the composer's March funèbre (1820) and Beethoven's Elegiac Song (Elegischer Gesang), Op. 118.
Cherubini's Requiem in C minor, by turns ethereal, highly dramatic and ultimately transcendent, was triumphantly premiered on January 21, 1817, in a memorial concert below the abbey church of St. Denis to commemorate the anniversary of the executions of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. The bodies of the long deposed monarchs had been searched for and found a few years earlier and were finally being laid to rest in the crypt of St. Denis. Though held in the highest esteem by many of the greatest composers of his time, this first of Cherubini's two Requiems fell into obscurity by the end of the 19th century. The new recording gives the work a new lease on life and invites listeners who have long treasured – and even helped popularize – the great and varied Requiems by composers such as Mozart, Brahms, Fauré, Verdi and even Britten to discover a deeply satisfying and unjustly neglected masterpiece.
"The success of Cherubini's Requiem was immediate," says Pearlman in the liner notes, "and it was so overwhelming that Berlioz claimed that it gained a virtual 'monopoly' over memorial concerts in France. Beethoven, who called Cherubini "the greatest living composer," claimed that, if he himself should write a requiem, this one would be his only model; the work was performed at Beethoven's memorial service. For Schumann, the piece was 'without equal.' It is remarkable, therefore, that this beautiful work so admired by these composers, as well as by Mendelssohn, Brahms and Wagner, this requiem which the 19th century put on a level with the Mozart Requiem, fell into obscurity by the end of the century, along with most of the rest of Cherubini's music."
Cherubini's Requiem is scored for chorus and orchestra, but, surprisingly, does not feature vocal soloists. As Pearlman observes, "It is as if the composer has distanced himself as far as possible from his other life in opera." Violins are omitted in the opening two movements, creating an especially somber orchestral color. A single dramatic stroke of the tam-tam (gong) at the opening of the Dies irae (Day of wrath) is no doubt the work's most famous moment (or perhaps infamous, as some early listeners found it ill-suited for a religious work), and must have terrified listeners at the work's premiere. Also notable is the work's unusual ending, where the music fades away in a long, haunting diminuendo that Berlioz said, "surpasses anything of the kind that has been written."
Boston Baroque recorded Cherubini's Requiem – and its companion pieces on the album – in May 2006, following highly successful performances at Boston's Jordan Hall. Under the headline BOSTON BAROQUE GIVES A FORGOTTEN ROYAL REQUIEM NEW LIFE, long-time Globe critic Richard Dyer reported: "Pearlman has kept Boston Baroque in the forefront of the historically-informed, early-instrument field not only by its standard of performance but by keeping ahead of the curve in programming. The Requiem is a darkly colored and emotionally powerful piece…The writing for chorus is skillful and the orchestration is full of imaginative touches of color...[The orchestra displayed] some fine playing, and the chorus was splendid...This was an important rediscovery."
The new album opens, appropriately, with another rarely heard work of transcendent cast, Beethoven's sublime Elegiac Song, Op. 118. Written in the summer of 1814 for a friend whose wife had died in childbirth, the simple anonymous text, sung in German, is tenderly set by the composer:
Gently, as you lived,
thus have you died,
too holy for sorrow!
Let no eye shed tears
for the heavenly spirit's return home.
"Beethoven composed this small gem at the beginning of a difficult time in his life," says Pearlman, "a period in which he produced a few major works but appeared to be rethinking his musical vocabulary…While the Elegiac Song can hardly be said to anticipate the style of the late quartets, it does reflect a sense of searching, a sense that nothing is conventional, even in a small pièce d'occasion."
An additional Cherubini work, the March funèbre (1820), closes the album in dramatic fashion. Referring to its repeated gong strokes and "passionate dissonances," Pearlman observes, "As we might expect from a march, this is ceremonial music, very different in spirit from the profoundly emotional Requiem, and it indulges much more freely in theatrical effects."
Boston Baroque has made sixteen previous recordings for Telarc including three that have been nominated for GRAMMY Awards: Handel's Messiah, Monteverdi's Vespers and Bach's B-minor Mass.