BACH: Partita in D Minor for solo violin, BWV 1004; Chorales; Ciaconna; FAURÉ: Requiem, Op. 48 – Gordan Nikolitch, violin/ Grace Davidson, sop./ William Gaunt, bar./ London Sym. Orch. Ch. Ens./ Tenebrae/ Nigel Short – LSO Live multichannel SACD LSO0728, 68:15 [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] ***1/2:
Right away, it must be noted that this recording has some unusual features and will, in fact, prove controversial in some circles. To the more casual listener the controversy won’t matter as much as the fine playing and singing on display here. For those niggled by departures from the scholarly straight and narrow, I will lay out the questionable elements herein.
First of all, the notes to the recording state that commentators have been puzzled by the fact that Bach’s Partita No. 2 for solo violin, which features the usual succession of dance movements typical of the Baroque suite, should be capped by a monumental chaconne, a series of variations on a four-note ground bass that stretches to 256 measures (over thirteen minutes’ duration in the present performance). Professor Helga Thoene of the University of Düsseldorf has postulated that this final movement is a tombeau (remember Ravel’s Tombeau de Couperin?), a musical tribute to the departed, in this case Bach’s first wife, Maria Barbara (d. 1720). Professor Thoene bases her theory on the fact that “funereal Lutheran melodies are woven into the music’s fabric.” An interesting idea that seems not to have gained much traction in the Bach-scholarship community.
Be that as it may, Nigel Short and Tenebrae take Thoene’s hypothesis as a jumping-off point for the Bach half of the program. Between the individual movements and then, finally, above the strains of the final Ciaconne, they interpolate “some of Bach’s most apposite chorales,” including the expected Christ lag in Todesbanden. Most apposite seems to be their contribution in the Ciaconne, where they supply a recurring ground to the variations. The effect is lovely even if unsupported by any historical evidence. Again, for those who want the Partita or Bach’s chorale treatments separate and not glommed together, this may be galling. Other less finicky listeners may be engaged or not as they feel moved by the presentation. As for me, I find Tenebrae’s deployment of the excellent Serbian violinist-conductor Gordan Nikolitch a definite plus, and the singing has an austere beauty that thoroughly matches the concept behind this production. Will I listen often to this musical hybrid? Frankly, no.
That brings us to the Fauré Requiem, another work “in the same funereal key of d minor,” though ironically, from the first appearance of the work Fauré was taken to task for deemphasizing certain theological aspects of the score, namely the centrality of the portrayal of the Day of Wrath. This is not a requiem mass in the Romantic tradition of Berlioz and Verdi. Instead, it is gentle, consolatory, the most obvious departure from the standard treatment coming at the end, where Fauré incorporates a section, In Paradisum, not found in the original mass text but instead deriving from an antiphon used in the burial service. The first line of the antiphon says everything about Fauré’s unique conception: “May angels lead you into paradise. . . .”—not the impersonal third-person dead but a second-person departed who is prayed into heaven as if it were a foregone conclusion.
Maybe Fauré took inspiration from his long-time friend Camille Saint-Saëns’ 1877 Requiem, which is much more personal and small-scale than other such works of the Romantic era. Whether or not, Saint-Saëns paid his friend the ultimate compliment when he said that Fauré’s Pie Jesu was the setting of the Pie Jesu.
Again, this is a beautiful, wonderfully sensitive performance of the work, with good solo contributions from soprano Grace Davidson and baritone William Gaunt. But truth told, Davidson’s rather white tone and Gaunt’s light bright baritone won’t be to everybody’s taste in this work. For those seeking more characterful solo singing, I recommend the Accentus recording with Sandrine Piau and Stéphan Degout. But be forewarned that not only is the recording not hi-res surround-sound, but it offers very short measure.
Which brings us back to the present rendition. The notes identify this as a recording of Fauré’s 1893 version, though Nigel Short and Tenebrae have apparently adopted a hybridized variant of that version. The edition of the score by Michel Nectoux and Roger Delage, which seems to be considered definitive, includes parts for two bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, and timpani, as well as harp, organ, and strings. An older edition by choral composer John Rutter, which Nigel Short and Tenebrae may use as their guide, notes that the essential complement for a performance includes just two horns along with organ, harp, and strings. Short and Tenebrae choose to go Rutter two better by employing four horns instead of two, but otherwise, they offer the pared-down instrumentation that Rutter concludes is “essential.” Again, as lovely as the results are, I’m not sure this can be called a definitive presentation of the 1893 version as Fauré conceived it.
LSO Live’s recording, emanating from St. Giles’ Cripplegate in London, is beautifully warm and full, which can’t always be said of recordings set down in the LSO’s home, the Barbican Center. I’ve given this release an extra half-star in my rating based on the numerous felicities on display, including the lovely live SACD recording. Still, if your chief focus is the Fauré Requiem (or the unadorned Bach Partita, for that matter), you’ll be better served looking elsewhere.