CD Review of Requiem by Geoffrey Atkinson

British Music Society 

Review of Requiem SOMM CD

by Geoffrey Atkinson  

A major work from Ian Venables is always most welcome, but a masterpiece like this leaves me almost speechless.  Having played the CD twice, I bought the score which very much helped to reveal some of the skill and intricacies in the evolution and construction of this work. Venables states that when the idea of a commission to compose a full Requiem was suggested, he felt it would be ‘too daunting a creative challenge’, but he did agree to compose a short work memorial work for a funeral service.

This was a setting, as an introit, of the ‘Requiem Aeternum’ text, (recorded on SOMM 0187).  This had the unexpected effect of firing him up with an ‘overwhelming desire’ to set the whole thing, which quickly turned into an 18 month compositional odyssey. Op 48 may be a fortunate omen. Fauré’s much loved work also bore this magic number. However, the style is much more reminiscent of Duruflé’s Op 9 although the melodic lines are modal rather than derived from plainsong. The harmonies are diatonic with various degrees of dissonance, some quite strong, some achingly beautiful.

Venables makes his own compilation of the texts. There is a ‘Pie Jesu’, but for choir after a short solo. The ‘Dies Irae’ scares rather than terrorises the listener, but most strikingly, there is no ‘In Paradisum’. Rather the conclusion is the ‘Lux aeterna’ because the text has ‘a transcendental resonance, one that connects our inner world with the spiritual world that lies beyond the veil.’ Thus, the work ends ‘in a mood of radiant optimism’, rather than the Faure’s resigned scepticism or Durufle’s perfumed tranquility. Listening with the score, the subtlety with which two extraordinarily simple organ and choir motifs are woven into subsequent passages is more evident.  Ian says the ‘Libera me’ ‘proved to be the biggest creative challenge’ in which case I would suggest it became his ‘biggest’ success.

I loved coming across the directions ‘spaventato’ (fearful’) and ‘minnacciando’ (menacing) in the approach to the ‘Dies Irae’ which is set as a sinister march (the outline deriving from the second of the original motifs). This leads to a spectacular dissonance which slowly unwinds to an unsettled pianissimo. The performance is exemplary.  Sopranos and altos (boys and girls) are absolutely rock-solid and pure in tone but the men sometimes sound a bit woolly. That may be a consequence of a difficult acoustic.  I also noted that the pedal part from the organ could have had more definition (and my set-up does include a sub-woofer).

There are four additional anthems on the disc, but you would want to hear these on a different occasion than the Requiem which, as you may gather, I have found overwhelming.

Geoffrey Atkinson