Jean Paul Egide Martini: Requiem pour Louis XVI. et Marie Antoinette

[Corinna Schreiter, Martin Platz, Markus Simon STB], Festivalchor Musica Franconia, La Banda, Wolfgang Riedelbauch
Christophorus CHR 77413
+ Gluck: De Profundis

Symbolism hangs heavily over the music on this CD. The restitution of the Bourbon monarchy marked the start of attempts to cleanse France of the stain of revolution and Napoleonic imperialism. One of the earliest politically potent acts was the re-interment of Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette. It was conducted with elaborate ceremony on 28 January 1816 in the cathedral of Saint Denis, north of Paris, the traditional resting place of French monarchs. A week earlier, on the anniversary of the execution of the king, the same venue had hosted a specially commissioned Requiem Mass. The choice of composer was also highly symbolic. Had it not been for the onset of the revolution in 1788, Jean Paul Egide Martini (1741-1816), today best known as the composer of ‘Plaisir d’amour’, would have become surintendent de la musique du roi, an appointment finally confirmed more than a quarter of a century later. The composition of the Requiem would prove to be one of his final acts, for he died only three weeks after its performance. The following year a rather better known commemorative Requiem, that in C minor by Martini’s successor, Luigi Cherubini, was commissioned for the anniversary.

Martini’s work is planned on a large-scale in twelve movements. It is designed for soprano, tenor and bass soloists, chorus and an orchestra including trumpets, trombones and a tam-tam, an instrument that found its way into funeral music during the Revolutionary period (Berlioz enthusiasts will not need reminding he used three in his Requiem Mass). Despite such implications, such assertive instruments are employed sparingly, but often to compelling dramatic effect, as in ‘Tuba mirum’, where trumpet fanfares play a part in effecting the building of successive climaxes that remind us that Martini was an experienced opera composer. The main heft of the work, both in terms of timing and weight, is in fact to be found in the opening Requiem aeternam  and Dies irae  movements, some of the briefer later sections apparently demonstrating a lack of real substance.

I write ‘apparently’ since any final verdict on the piece must be tempered given the well-intentioned, but ultimately inadequate performance on offer. It stems from a live performance given in Martini’s birthplace, Freystadt in Bavaria (though both his parents were French). The chorus is an enthusiastic, but not very disciplined amateur group, the ensemble of which is poor and whose entries are frequently ragged. The best of the soloists is the tenor, whose singing in the lyrical duet Ingemisco is good. But among the soloists he has the least to do and both soprano and bass are mediocre, the latter at times being woefully off-pitch. The period instrument orchestral playing is on a higher plain, but I can imagine more inspiring direction. The final nail in the coffin is an opaque recording that renders the choral sound as an unintelligible pudding and sloppy English notes that have obviously not been proofread: the Battle of Waterloo was fought in 1815, not 1825, Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette were executed nine months apart, not on the same day, and far from being ‘exactly a year after the execution’ 21 January 1816 was 23 years after it.

Brian Robins