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Music review: Le Concert Spiritual: 19th-century French music (Wigmore Hall)

07 October 2022

Fiona Hook on music that was not cancelled


BY COINCIDENCE, the Wigmore Hall, in London, had programmed two concerts of funeral music in the week after Queen Elizabeth II’s death. Rather than cancel, they went ahead, dedicated to Her Majesty.

Hervé Niquet conducted Le Concert Spirituel in a programme of 19th-century French music reflecting the strength of faith of composers better known today for their secular music. Some of them, such as Gounod and Delibes, are more familiar than others. Théodore Dubois’s Ave Maria with its solo soprano and his instrumental Méditation-Prière owe much to his experience as an opera composer. The gentle chromaticisms, reverently sung, of Saint-Saens’s E-major O Salutaris tenderly expressed the pain of Christ’s sacrifice.

Fauré’s Requiem, in the 1893 version for solo baritone and choir, exemplified all the qualities that had given the first half its emotional depth. With only 25 musicians on stage, the work had the intimate quality of a beloved friend’s funeral, and a confidence in divine mercy that robbed even the Dies Irae of its terrors. The performers were looking beyond, certain of the life to come. The sound level never rose above mezzo forte, but, within that, Niquet managed to find a range of dynamic shading. The strings, playing with minimal vibrato, brought an unusual warm to the overall texture. Even the horns’ sudden fortissimo in the Agnus Dei lost its usual startling quality, becoming instead a point of sudden light in the surrounding soft sonic glow.

Two days previously, Vox Luminis under Lionel Meunier gave us an aural experience of extraordinary, spiritually moving beauty. It was one of the loveliest concerts I have ever been to. Ein Deutsches Barock-Requiem, centred round Schütz’s well-known Musikalische Exequien, his funeral music for Prince Henrich von Reuss, and taking early Baroque settings of some of the texts that Brahms used in his German Requiem, was also a meditation on death, and the prospect of an afterlife. Little is known of the music of Hammerschmidt, Schwemmer, and Scharmann, whose settings were receiving their UK premières, alongside those of their colleagues Schein, Geist, and Briegel; but on this showing they are overdue a revival.

The 12 singers were equally outstanding in their solo passages and as an ensemble, their combined voices paying out a smooth, luminous river of sound into which Anthony Romaniuk’s supportive organ blended like another voice. The string accompaniment, two violins and three viols, shone gently like light through stained glass.

They saved the best until last. Their encore, Thomas Morley’s Burial Sentences, held the audience breathless. Our new King bade farewell to his mother with “Flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.” For a moment, the veil was lifted, and we glimpsed how this might sound.

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