Requiem of Reconciliation

Author: 
Edward Greenfield

Requiem of Reconciliation

  • Requiem of Reconciliation

As I witnessed myself, it was a great event in Stuttgart on August 16th, greater than I had expected, and certainly far more successful aesthetically than I had ever dared hope, when 14 very different composers each contributed a section to a setting of the Requiem liturgy. It was the idea of Helmuth Rilling – who earlier won fame for the Hanssler Classic label, reconstructing and recording another collaborative effort, the Messa per Rossini organized by Verdi (2/90) – to celebrate in this way the fiftieth anniversary of the end of the Second World War. He asked composers from the combatant nations – the Dutch sadly missing – to collaborate in a work which would reflect the suffering of war and symbolize the reconciliation that has followed. Rilling has long had a special relationship with the Israel Philharmonic, and it was felt apt that the Jewish contribution should be the attendant one of interpretation.
How then does the recording – completed and marketed in handsome format in an astonishingly brief time – compare with the live experience? My first astonishment on hearing the discs is that the sound is even more spectacular than in the Stuttgart Beethoven-Saal. With the vast forces superbly balanced, there is a bite and immediacy which allows one to appreciate every detail. How much more telling this is than many a live recording set against a big, washy acoustic. As in the hall, the opening could hardly be more dramatic, with Luciano Berio in his Prolog recreating the raw sound of the Jewish shofar on heavy brass, punctuated by the chorus with dramatic shouts. I see that Berio's latest work is called Shofar, so I begin to wonder which came first. In fact Berio was the last to complete his assignment, having been pursued from continent to continent by Rilling to meet his deadline. There was a question mark, too, over Schnittke's contribution to the Communio, when he suffered a stroke, but Gennadi Rozhdestvensky came to the rescue, orchestrating the completed sketch.
In the end, the wonder is that the results are so consistent, the reflection – so the composers themselves felt – of concentrating on the theme of suffering, as well, of course, as Rilling's shrewd choice of contributors. Reflecting the text, the first half – up to Arne Nordheim's Confutatis – is the darker and more taxing. Only towards the end of that sequence does John Harbison's fine setting of Juste judex lighten the mood and textures, with Nordheim then the first identifiably to use the secondary idea presented to the composers of linking the Requiem with Gregorian chant. Nordheim uses the notes of the chant vertically as well as horizontally, while in the second half the Frenchman, Marc-Andre Dalbavie, in his Domine Jesu Christe goes much further in direct Gregorian echoes.
Bernard Rands's thoughtful introduction to the second half gives just one word to the chorus, ''Deus!''. Then, after the Dalbavie, comes the most incandescent of the pieces, Judith Weir's brilliant setting of the Sanctus with its brass commentaries. The Japanese, Joji Yuasa, as a Buddhist was initially doubtful about taking part, but in the event his atmospheric, finely terraced setting of the Responsorium and Libera me makes a fine culmination before the rather perfunctory, if striking, Epilog of Gyorgy Kurtag. Only one of the 14 contributions is a disappointment, but that is a serious one, the Dies irae of the German composer, Paul-Heinz Dittrich. Even that noisy movement, with its extravagant extra percussion and general flight from precise pitching is not quite such a let-down on disc, when the soloists effectively relieve the impression of aimless noise. As to the singing generally, the soloists make an outstanding team, with the Canadian soprano, Donna Brown, particularly impressive, while choruses and orchestra consistently respond to Rilling's direction with thrilling attack.
At the time I wondered whether such an ambitious work could ever gain currency, but the brilliant success of the discs both in performance and recording certainly establishes this as a valuable addition to the catalogue, one most likely to prompt more live performances. '

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