Franz Xaver Richter: Leçons des ténèbres. Isabelle Poulenard (soprano), Pascal Bertin (alto), Gilles Ragon (tenor), Peter Harvey (bass), Stradivaria, Daniel Cuillier. Cyprès CYP1624 (2000), barcode 5412217016241
Recorded 16-18 September 1999 at L’Eglise des Dominicains de Haute-Alsace, France
A useful glimpse into a neglected side of ex-Mannheim composer Franz-Xaver Richter’s output – but not the most seductive work
29 January 2019
Music lovers with a taste for the off-the-beaten track repertoire will know Franz Xaver Richter (1709-1789) as one of the founders and participants of the Mannheim School (link will open new tab to Wikipedia), together with Johann Stamitz (1715-1757), Ignaz Holzbauer (1711-1783), Franz Ignaz Beck (1734-1809) and Christian Cannabich (1731-1798), that revolutionized symphonic writing in the mid-18th century. But Richter didn’t stop in Mannheim, and in 1769 he was appointed Kappellmeister of the Strasbourg Cathedral, where his duties were to write tons of religious and other occasional music. The Cathedral maintained a substantial musical ensemble including 24 singers and 30 instrumentalists, the second in size after only the orchestra (Chapelle Royale) of Versailles. In the course of his career there, Richter composed 39 Masses, a Magnificat, a Dixit Dominues, and over fifty cantatas and motets, so we know where to look whenever we’re tired of Mozart and Haydn.
So the CD is interesting for offering a glimpse into this neglected part of Richter’s output. The Lamentations were probably composed in 1773. The manuscript and parts are still in the possession of the Catholic congregation in Strasbourg. That said, Richter was always known to be one of the most conservative composers of the Mannheim school, and ever since Tallis and down to Couperin, Charpentier and Delalande, the “Lamentations” genre (or “Leçons de ténèbres” as they were known in France), celebrating, through the allegory of Jerusalem destroyed and its people in shackles, the passion and sufferings of Christ, was never an outlet for the kind of orchestral and choral splendor and celebratory mood found in Masses, Magnificats, Te Deums or even Requiems; rather, they were confined to an atmosphere of austerity and deploration (sometimes made up by the sensuousness of the vocal embroidery), and Richter’s are no different. Interestingly, his instrumental ensemble does without violins, and consists basically of a continuo (cello, double-bass, harpsichord and/or organ) with obbligato cello, which pulls the tonal range in the direction of the lower registers and darkens the colors. The relative tonal blandness that ensues is only relieved by the association of two flutes to soprano, two violas to tenor and alto and two bassoons to bass – which, other than flutes, keeps the instrumtal tessituras in the low registers. As for the flutes, they lend the soprano’s first two lamentations, tracks 2 & 5, a more pastoral mood, very affecting but not entirely in-sync with the words of lamentation being sung – the flutes are more deploratory in her third lamentation, track 8, which is the most effective of the nine, I find. The writing doesn’t sound very sophisticated, and I’m not always under the impression that Richter was setting those specific words to music: it often sounds like stock melodic formulas, independent of the content being sung, although at some moments there is an effort to illustrate in music what the words are depicting. There is no ensemble singing, the four singers alternate. There vocal line isn’t ornamented, there are none of the vocal melismata on vowels that you associate not just with “baroque” music but also with the vocal writing of Haydn and Mozart, the words are simply sung. The composition has its austere beauties but it isn’t the most immediately seductive work you can imagine.
Outstanding liner notes, texts and translations provided, TT 55:40