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Insula orchestra/Equilbey: Fauré's Requiem

Laurence Equilbey conducting

Sacred masterpieces by Gounod and Fauré are brought viscerally alive through the period-instrument timbres of Insula orchestra together with Mat Collishaw’s haunting projections juxtaposing images of nature and grief.

‘Do not weep! It is death itself that flees away.’ Charles Gounod

A quiet, radiant confidence hangs over both Gabriel Fauré’s Requiem and Charles Gounod’s Saint Francois d’Assise. These are works – one familiar, the other all but unknown, one imbued with faith (Gounod almost gave up music for the life of a priest) and one composed ‘for fun’ – that look death in the eye with the certainty of salvation, of resolution, of peace.

Composed within a few years of one another at the very end of the 19th century, they speak of a new relationship between God and congregation. Verdi’s hellish chorus of the damned, Berlioz’s battering Judgment Day fanfares and volleys of timpani are banished, and in their place we find a new gentleness and intimacy: music to comfort the living as much as mourn the dead.

For over a century Gounod’s final oratorio Saint Francois d’Assise was only a story and a name. Composed for the regular sacred concerts of Paris’s Société des Concerts du Conservatoire, where it was premiered in March 1891, the manuscript was subsequently lost – only rediscovered in the 1990s in a convent library – and recorded for the first time by accentus in 2016.

The work arrived in the composer’s imagination as a pair of images – a diptych ‘after the manner of the primitive painters’. Two musical movements take inspiration from Murillo’s St Francis Embracing Christ and Giotto’s The Death of St Francis respectively: the first tender, the image of the crucified Christ softened by pastels and hazy sfumato; the second starkly ceremonial, perspective flattened, the dead saint surrounded by reverent crowd of clergy.

Mirroring the spirit, if not the style of each, Gounod gives us two contrasting musical panels. Strings conjure a cloudy sort of plainsong for the start of ‘La cellule’, setting the tone for an instrumental prelude that paints medieval piety with the rich brushstrokes of the 19th century.

Soon the circling shapes coalesce into a wordless chorale or hymn, before St Francis himself (a solo tenor) first speaks in flexible, lyrical recitative, taking up the hymn in a suddenly passionate outpouring. Faced with such rapturous devotion, the Crucifix comes to life (as a solo baritone) and answers – a miracle that stirs the music not to new intensity but simplicity, a harp now gilding the gentle strings.

Part 2 – ‘La mort’ – sees St Francis on his deathbed. Musically the lights have dimmed, brass and woodwind adding shadowy depth. The saint addresses his followers, reassuring them as they (male chorus) chant their sombre prayers of intercession. Just as Francis promises, at the moment of his death darkness is banished. The harp returns, joined by an angelic chorus of female voices who waft him upwards – the hopes of the opening hymn (reprised in the orchestra) tenderly and wonderfully fulfilled.

Premiered just a few years earlier in 1888 (though heard complete for the first time in 1893) Gabriel Fauré’s Requiem re-set the course of death-music so effectively that it’s now impossible to hear it with the same shock as those first listeners. ‘I wanted to do something different,’ the composer declared.

To those steeped in tumultuous spiritual drama, in the struggle between light and dark played out so violently from Verdi onwards, both the liturgy and the sound-world of Fauré’s ‘lullaby of death’ were alien. What should listeners make of the sober restraint and ‘sweet nature’ of a work that did away with the ‘Dies irae’ altogether, made significant cuts to the text of the ‘Offertorium’ and borrowed the ‘In paradisum’ from the burial service, a Mass that ends not on the hopes and pleas of the Agnus Dei but with a sublime vision of heaven achieved?

It’s a battle between tradition and innovation that we hear in the work’s opening bars. A fortissimo D minor chord in woodwind and strings jolts the ‘Introit’ into stentorian life. But the choir refuses to be drawn, entering instead at pianissimo. The two worlds tussle for a while, before the tension resolves into the soaring ‘Requiem aeternam’ melody.

If the Requiem is a lullaby, then the ‘Kyrie’ sets the rocking tempo, setting its pleas (‘Lord have mercy’) to a lulling hymn heard first in tenors and subsequently taken up by the whole choir. Desperation breaks through in the ‘Christe eleison’ but its tensions are short-lived.

The extended ‘Offertoire’ glances back to the same medieval world as the Gounod in music that nods both to plainsong and polyphony without ever actually imitating either. Its shifting moods find repose on the surer ground of the echoing ‘Sanctus’ and the stillness of the ‘Pie Jesu’ – a moment of exquisite purity for solo soprano, or as here, a fluting treble voice.

Two of the Requiem’s greatest melodies dominate the ‘Agnus Dei’ and the ‘Libera me’ that follows. The ‘Agnus Dei’ closes with a reprise of the opening Introit; to anyone familiar with the liturgy this must surely have seemed to be a full-circle ending. But Fauré adds a glorious coda in the form of the ‘Libera me’ – final doubts and fears voiced then dispelled by the surging baritone solo – and the closing ‘In paradisum’: a glimpse of an endless, unbroken musical horizon, D minor now transfigured into luminous D major.

© Alexandra Coghlan

Programme and performers

Charles Gounod Saint François d’Assise
Part 1, La cellule
Part 2, La mort
Gabriel Fauré Requiem
1. Introit
2. Kyrie
3. Offertoire
4. Sanctus
5. Pie Jesu
6. Agnus Dei
7. Libera me
8. In paradisum

Insula orchestra
Laurence Equilbey
Oliver Barlow treble (Trinity Boys Choir)
John Brancy baritone
Amitai Pati tenor
Mat Collishaw filmmaker
Christophe Grapperon accentus associate conductor


Artist biographies

Audience in the hall

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