Le Concert Spirituel’s Wigmore Hall concert was fascinating and touching in equal measure

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Fauré Requiem, & works by Dubois, Saint-Saëns, Gounod, Delibes and Guilmant: Le Concert Spirituel / Hervé Niquet (conductor). Wigmore Hall, London, 17.9.2022. (CC)

Le Concert Spirituel’s Faure Requiem at the Wigmore Hall

DuboisBenedicat vobis (1893); Ave Maria (1894); Méditation in D (pub. 1869)
Saint-SaënsTantum ergo, Op.5 (1956); O salutaris in A flat (1869); Offertoire pour la Toussaint (1904); O salutaris in E (1884). Ave verum in D
GounodElévation in B minor (c. 1850-70)
DelibesAve maris stella (pub. 1891)
GuilmantO salutaris, Op.37 (1895)
Fauré – Requiem, Op.48 (1893 version, adapted Niquet for solo baritone, mixed choir and chamber orchestra)

Hervé Niquet’s Le Concert Spirituel has maintained an enviable reputation through continued excellence usually, though by no means always, in early music. Here was a concert of music largely of fin de siècle France, culminating in the Fauré Requiem in a small-scale version by Niquet (perfect for Wigmore Hall, of course).

First though, an eleven-piece processional through French choral music, launched by Théodore Dubois’s Benedicat vobis, its text from Psalm 133 for the liturgy of the nuptial Mass. Unison choir and solo cello (beautifully delivered by Gesine Queyras). It is a lovely piece, with its gorgeously long, lovely melody for male voices at the outset answered by an inter-stanza linking passage for cello and organ. Niquet ensured the piece flowed beautifully before Saint-Saëns’s setting of St Aquinas, Tantum Ergo took us into a more interior space. The choir, beautifully balanced, seemed to relish in particular the loveliness of the blossoming of ‘Praestet fides supplementum, sensuum defectui’ (Let faith provide a supplement for the failure of the senses).

Niquet is no stranger to this music – his contributions to the recording of Saint-Saëns’s Music for the Prix de Rome with the Flemish Radio Choir attests to his fondness for this music. He certainly found a beautiful sense of flow to the O salutaris (a precursor to the ‘In Paradisum’ of the Requiem if ever there was one in its vocal lines, and of the Sanctus in its arpeggios; the two works share a warm harmonic glow, to boot). If anything, Saint-Saëns’s harmonies in the Offertoire pour la Toussaint were even more radiant, heard here on choir and organ underpinned by the double bass of Luc Devanne.

Gounod’s Elévation in B minor for violin, organ and double bass is a real rarity, expressive and dark, with Chouchane Siranossian the fine violin soloist and François Saint-Yves on organ (whose contributions throughout were first-class) with Devanne. As the ideal complement, Delibes’s Ave maris stella for female voices and organ offered contrast of sound and texture, with a real sense of the ecstatic at the third stanza’s ‘Solve vincula reis, profer lumen caecis’ (Break the chains of sinners bring light to the blind). Some of the melodic turns seemed to bring the piece very close to plainchant before another Saint-Saëns O salutaris, this time in E major, surprisingly chromatic and modern sounding (think Franck, and then some). A remarkable piece (and Niquet seemed to bring out its modernist tendencies more than he does on his recording) before the remarkable scoring of the Ave verum in D, for horn, organ and choir, with the horn singing in its tricky lower-mid register beautifully in Emma Cottet’s performance. The horn part even includes low stopping, notoriously difficult but here very effective in this beautiful, heartfelt piece, with the singers of Le Concert Spirituel in fine voice, incredibly disciplined.

The final two choral pieces of the first half brought together Théodore Dubois (an Ave Maria) and Alexandre Guilmant (another O salutaris), the first tender, chordal and beautifully balanced, the latter with its baritone solo (Jean-Christophe Lanièce) clearly linking to the Fauré Requiem.

Niquet’s recording of the Fauré Requiem with the Flemish Radio Choir and the Brussels Philharmonic is notable for lean sonorities and fast speeds; both were in evidence here at the Wigmore, too, with the Requiem heard in Niquet’s own reduction. Leaving aside a slightly splashy opening, the Wigmore performance was revelatory, not least in how Niquet’s fast speed for the Offertorium resulted in the most impassioned counterpoint imaginable. This was no place of repose, leading to Lanièce’s beautiful entry at the Hostias. Harmonic shifts lost none of their power, but the urgent sense of momentum meant that the Sanctus could flow beautifully in contrast (with spectacularly even violin solos from Siranossian).

The Pie Jesu was performed with sopranos together on that line, requiring (and receiving) perfect ensemble and super-clean slurs. The whole was sustained by Niquet’s clear vision of the piece, which meant that the arrival of the Lux aeterna could appear perfectly naturally, while the moments of harmonic unrest in the Agnus, too, reminded us that he Fauré Requiem is far from uniformly cosy, an impression reinforced by Niquet and Lanièce in the urgency of the Libera me, its ‘In die illa tremenda’ properly dramatic. The Dies irae itself was interesting, the two horns blaring nicely (and with inserted crescendos in the sustained notes); the final return of the baritone’s plea for deliverance at the close of the movement was unbearably touching. Finally, that In paradisum, sopranos perfectly together again, slurs again beyond criticism.

A concert that was fascinating and touching in equal measure is currently available on the venue’s YouTube. The contextualisation of a piece so well-known and well-loved was everything one could ask for, allowing us to hear the Fauré Requiem anew; and the sheer constant high standard of performance was testament to the rapport between conductor, players and singers. A beautiful evening – perhaps it is that Saint-Saëns Offertoire that remains strongest in the memory …

Colin Clarke

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