Reflection and Remembrance: Requiems by Fauré and Charpentier – Union Chapel, London

Reviewer: Jane Darcy

Performers: Figure

Conductor: Frederick Waxman

Frederick Waxman’s Figure presents an exquisite, meditative evening of music and readings at Islington’s Union Chapel; its theme, Reflection and Remembrance, is apt for November’s traditional association with remembrance of the dead. The Union Chapel itself gives a solemnity and beauty to the occasion. Two requiems are performed: Gabriel Fauré’s Requiem in D minor, Op. 48 and Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s Messe pour les trépassés (Mass for the Departed), H.2 and his setting of the Dies Irae, Prose des morts, H.12. The two centuries that separate the works allow Figure to demonstrate the range of the group’s historically informed performances and also the extraordinary evolution of music across this period.

Charpentier (1643-1704) wrote his Messe pour les trépassés after his journey to Rome in his mid-twenties. It is a sober, elegant setting of the Kyrie, with its soothing repetitions. His Prose des morts, on the other hand, engages with the terrifying text of the Dies Irae: ‘The Day of Wrath, that day/ will dissolve the world in ashes:/ thus prophesied David with the Sybil’. We hear of terror and trumpets that will sound on Judgment Day, when ‘nothing will remain unpunished’. Figure’s small orchestra create a dramatic sound world with a handful of strings, two wind instruments, a theorbo, a chamber organ and the wonderful forerunner of the trombone, the serpent. The choir of eight contribute a beautiful rendering of the text, in particular the two sopranos, Ana Beard Fernández and Claire Ward.

Between these two parts, Radio 3’s Donald Macleod offers the first of a sequence of thought-provoking readings. Prefacing the Prose des morts is the opening of Dante’s Inferno, which too evokes panic, fear and terror. Other readings, including Philip Larkin’s painful ‘Aubade’ and David Eagleman’s riveting ‘Descent of Species,’ explore aspects of what it is to be mortal, what it means to die.

Listening to Fauré’s Requiem after the Charpentier is a thrilling experience. The richness of the orchestration alongside Fauré’s lyrical additions, Pie Jesu and In paradisum, conjure up the great works that precede it – Mozart’s darkly dramatic Requiem in D minor, K.626; Brahm’s Ein deutsches Requiem, completed in 1869 and Verdi’s operatic 1874 Messa da Requiem. But the thrills of this performance of the Requeim are more than this: Waxman and Figure present such an innovative interpretation that Faure’s work comes up freshly rinsed: it’s like hearing the work for the first time. Waxman chooses to play the first complete version, with its reduced forces and smaller ‘church’ choir and to have the orchestral players use late-nineteenth-century portamenti, or expressive sliding notes, together with a looser approach to time.

Rowan Pierce and Ashley Riches, the soprano and bass-baritone soloists, sing not in front of the orchestra, but from high up – Pierce on a balcony, Riches from a pulpit – which adds strangeness and mystery. In the ‘Offertoire’ and the ‘Agnus Dei’ there is a fresh surprise when from the balcony comes the exquisite playing of a solo viola player.

Saturday 12 November 2022

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The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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