Saint-Saens Messe de Requiem
With many composers you can say they wrote more idiomatically either for voices or instruments. But Saint-Saëns seems to have been equally at home in both media, so that whatever he writes is not merely grateful to sing or play but to listen to as well. I know that for some the epithet ‘grateful’ will be tantamount to a write-off of the work concerned. That’s their loss. Because with Saint-Saëns ‘grateful’ only rarely equals ‘vacuous’.
On the face of it there might be no particular virtue in completing a 35-minute Requiem in eight days, as he did in 1878; more to the point, the result is a moving if sober work, close to Fauré’s in spirit though quite different in most particulars. It’s a pity the tenor soloist should belong to the unreconstructedly lachrymose, operatic school, and the only upside to this is that when he sings ‘Ingemisco tamquam reus’, we believe him. Otherwise, the soloists are quite acceptable, even if the bass does introduce an unwonted ironic element by ending the phrase ‘nil inultum remanebit’ (‘nothing shall remain unavenged’) on a slightly sharp C, which the horn promptly ‘corrects’ with the note at true pitch. But these minor irritations aside, choir and orchestra give a sensitive, spirited reading of this fine score, absent from the catalogue for a couple of years. I was particularly impressed by the singing at the start of ‘Rex tremendae majestatis’, where Saint-Saëns was clearly determined not to do the obvious thing.
He developed the avoidance of cliché into a fine art in his secular choral works, too. The 10 here cover his whole working life and give us a good idea of what a supreme artist and technician he was. Time and again, just one note will go in an unexpected direction, or else stay put when you expect it to move, with curious and delightful results. The Radio Svizzera Choir do the composer proud, and in three of the songs the pianist Mario Patuzzi provides tidy, stylish accompaniments.