FRANCK: Les Sept Paroles de Notre Seigneur Jesus-Christ sur la Croix; GOUNOD: Sept Paroles du Christ sur la Croix – Sophie Graf, soprano/Valerie Bonnard, alto/Valerio Contaldo, tenor/Mathias Reusser, tenor/Fabrice Hayoz, baritone/Luc Aeschlimann, cello/Laure Ermacora, harp/Marcel Giannini, organ/Ensemble Vocal de Lausanne/Michel Corboz – Mirare MIR 106, 62:00 [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] ****:
Recorded 7-8 August 2009, these choral rarities present us with something like archaic romanticism in music, an outgrowth of Louis Niedermeyer’s 1853 “Theoretical and practical Treatise on the accompaniment of plainchant.” Franck himself published in 1857 an “Accompaniment of Gregorian chant on the organ,” moving as he was to the composition in 1859 of his Seven Words of Christ on he Cross, with its strong use of concertante cello to underline the singers’ plaints. For this inscription, Belgian musicologist Joris Lejeune made the transcription from the original manuscript.
In eight intimately haunted sections, with the organ underlining the dialogue of cello and appointed soli, the 45-minute Franck work opens with a Prologue for soprano, O vos omnes, “Is it nothing to you, all ye that pass by?” an austere meditation on Christ’s special affliction. The choir intones The First Word, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do, which begins with an a cappella Amen. The rhythm picks up at “quid faciunt” and its transition to “Crucixerunt Jesum et latrones,” which becomes contrapuntally syncopated march interspersed with ariosi meditations. Franck’s use of modal harmony increases the anguish at “He was numbered with the transgressors.” The two tenors join the solo cello and organ for “Today shalt thou be with me in paradise,” an intimate reminder for God to include the faithful in Salvation. The agonized–even harmonically eerie–Third Word for the vocal quartet and choir presents the Stabat Mater, “Woman behold thy son.” Stately and dignified, the music beckons the entrance of a harp cadenza that ushers the soprano’s and tenor’s soli and duetto commiseration with the grieving Mother of God.
The Fourth Word expresses Christ’s gravest doubt: “My God, why hast thou forsaken me?” A cappella choir maintains this ordeal, an affecting paean to spiritual loneliness. Cello and organ open the next ministry of pain for baritone, “Sitio!” (I thirst). A chorus of punishing Roman soldiers goad Him, saying “If thou be king of the Jews, save thyself!” They will repeat this query in further irony in barren, Verdi-like harmony. The baritone renews his cry, extending his lament to wonder if His people wearied of Him, having been delivered from Egypt. The vocal descent at “Parasti crucem” gives us pause. “Consummatum est,” tells us “It is finished.” Choir and tenor, with organ and harp accompaniment, strike a Biblical pose, a stately ballad informing us that His own self bore our sins in his own body. The inflamed tenor mollifies us, for “Surely. . .with his stripes we are healed.” Finally, tenor and choir intone following the cello obbligato and harp, “Father, into Thy hands I commend my spirit.” Operatic at moments, at other times intensely personal, this eclectic work rings with a directness whose virtuosity is all but subdued into the piety of the composer’s expression.
Charles Gounod set his own Les Sept Paroles de N.S. Jesus-Christ sur la Croix in 1855, and he dedicated the score to the Archbishop of Paris. Given that the music of Palestrina dominated Gounod’s consciousness, it is natural that this relatively brief score of eighteen minutes should emanate sophisticated harmonic and contrapuntal sensibilities devoid of instruments save the organ, perhaps geared to the talents of the choir at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. Soberly archaic, the opening Prologue–from Luke XXIII, 28–conveys a magisterial sibilance not easily forgotten. The sad figures droop with the words, “calvariae locum.” The transition to Matthew XXVII, 39 immediately asserts a tragic energy, only to dissipate into small quartet intoning the words, “Father, forgive them. . .” Luke XXIII, 39, 42-43, has modal harmonies announce to the malefactors that "today they shall be with me in Paradise." The influence of plainchant and the economical Palestrina style informs every bar.
From John XIX, 26-27, we witness a potent scene between Mother and Son, the word “Mulier” in potent harmonies whose anguish suggests Gesualdo. The central movement is the Adagio, from Matthew XXVII, 45-46 and Mark XV, 33-34, the human moment of gravest doubt: “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachtani?” The short “I thirst” episode (John XIX, 28) lingers over “dixit,” which descends to the agonized “Sitio.” The full chorus chants the application of vinegar to Jesus’ lips (John XIX, 29-30), and a terrible anticipation fills the air prior to Jesus’ utterance, “Consummatum est.” Finally, from Luke XXIII, 46, Adagio, the simple “Father, into Thy hands I commend my spirit.” The stark sincerity of expression convinces us of the pietism and understated devotion of this long-neglected work.
This review is dedicated to the memory of conductor David Randolph (1914-2010), who was a friend and mentor.