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Dip Your Ears, No. 85

Recently I read the following paragraph in Robert R. Reilly's music column in Crisis Magazine:

If you are surprised that I place Beethoven’s older contemporary, Luigi Cherubini (1760-1842), in this category, don’t be. In 1817, Beethoven named Cherubini the greatest living composer, after himself. All of Cherubini’s Masses are inspired, as his Requiem in C minor, which Beethoven thought superior to Mozart’s Requiem.

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Cherubini / Beethoven,
Requiem in C-minor / Elegiac Song
M.Pearlman / Boston Baroque
As it so happens, there has been a CD on my desk that I have thought of writing about for which this paragraph might be the perfect introduction. Instead of having come up with it on my own I am left quoting - but gladly. Martin Pearlman and his period performance group Boston Baroque are the United States' finest "HIP" ensemble - to which their Telarc recordings of Vivaldi's Gloria (with Bach's Magnificat) and the superb issue of Bach's Orchestral Suites as well as the Brandenburg Concertos testify.

One of their most recent CDs combines the greatest and the second greatest (now no longer living) composers: Beethoven and the Italo-Frenchman Cherubini. Cherubini is presented with the Requiem that Reilly mentions - as well as the short Marche funèbre. The Requiem, which was performed at Beethoven's memorial service, did not just impress the composer from Bonn. Schubert thought it "without equal" and Martin Pearlman notes that Berlioz stated (perhaps as much in admiration as in complaint) that it had gained a virtual monopoly over memorial concerts in France.

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Boston Baroque - Brandenburg Concertos

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Boston Baroque - Orchestral Suites

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Boston Baroque - Gloria / Magnificat

Cherubini's opera Lodoïska served as a model for Fidelio - and marked the highpoint of his career in the last decade of the 18th century. After a bout with depression, his operas out of favor with the public and his opera company disbanded, Cherubini disappeared from the musical scene - until commissions for sacred music rekindled his interest in composing. He caught a 'second wind' and composed his famous masses, the two Requiems and other, more modestly scaled religious works. The commission for the Requiem in C minor was the erstwhile highpoint of this second career that he rode out as director of the Paris Conservatoire until 1842.

Amid the revolutionary and restorational business in France the bodies (and heads, presumably) of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette were first found and brought to the crypt at St.Denis - and then, after Napoleon's final exit from the world stage, Louis XVIII was able to plan a proper memorial service for his predecessor whose rule had been so considerably and violently shortened. It was that occasion that Cherubini had been commissioned to write his Requiem for.

Far removed from his career in opera, the Requiem is a genuinely sacred work; not a sacred opera (as Verdi's Requiem is usually referred to). It features orchestra, organ, and a four part choir - but no soloists. It is an altogether more subtle work than Mozart's Requiem, less catchy perhaps - but no less easy on the ears. Whereas the latter manages to elude the accusation of cheap (if terribly effective) gloom-and-doom effects only by virtue of Mozart's sheer genius, Cherubini's take on the Requiem is more celebratory. It is an elating and moving work, not one that strives eagerly to express infinite sadness in music. And it is up to the little touches to give view to Cherubini's greatness - like the gentle rise of the uplifting last phrase in the Dies Irae: Pie Jesu Domine, dona eis requiem. Amen. (Holy Lord Jesus, grant them rest. Amen.) It's not thundered out in macabre or self-satisfied triumphalism but it lifts the mourning and dark grief of the preceding 18 strophes into the warm, hopeful and confident light that must be eternal rest.

The fine, detailed, impeccable but never sterile choir of the Boston Baroque does its part in making this moment - as any other moment on this recording - very special, indeed. They also help Beethoven's short Elegiac Song op. 118 to such a felt performance as if bent on making those five, six minutes alone worth the purchase of the CD. They succeed, as it were: "Gently as thou has lived, have you brought (life) to an end - too holy for sorrow! May no eye shed tears for the heavenly spirit's return home."

Not all of Beethoven's lesser known works are neglected masterpieces - and to be a masterpiece, the Elegiac Song may simply not be substantial enough. But it's a beautiful and calm work, it is thematically related, and it brings Beethoven wonderfully together with Cherubini - a connection all too easily overlooked, otherwise. The concluding orchestral Marche funèbre, just slighly shorter than the Beethoven work is a pleasant filler that actually reminds me a bit of the Mozart Requiem - if not exactly of what makes it great. It works like a theatrical and pleasant, if not moving, postlude to the rather more heavenly Requiem. And while Reilly is actually speaking of Cherubini's Coronation Mass when he says that "it is hard to overstate the magnificence of this Mass", the same applies to the Requiem, too.


Anonymous said...

An alternate:
Naxos 8.554749
Orchestra and Chorus of the Radio Svizzera Italiano/Grupo Vocale Cantemus; Diego Fasolis conductor

It lacks the Beethoven piece, but has the Marche Funebre; other than that, I find it has all the virtues you mention in the Boston Baroque recording. (I just gave it a listen through to be certain.)
And of course the Naxos price...
I'm quite satisfied that I opted for this version instead of the Boston Baroque.

jfl said...

Thank heavens for Naxos, even if I don't know that particular issue and therefore cannot comment on it.

The alternative to Boston Baroque for me would be Muti... seeing that that would be a smoother, bigger, bolder approach than Perlman.