César Franck: Panis Angelicus
Gabriel Fauré: Requiem, Op. 48
Conductor: Antonio Rendina
Coro Città di Roma
Coro giovanile MusicaViva
Paolo Ciavarelli: Baritone
Carla Ferrari: Soprano
Frederico Vallini: Organist
Two weeks after enjoying a wonderful and packed performance of Mozart’s Requiem at the beautiful Episcopal Chiesa di San Paolo dentro le Mura, also known as St. Paul’s within the Walls, in Rome as part of the Sunday evening series Luminaria, I was back last Sunday evening for a slightly less packed performance of Gabriel Fauré’s Requiem, a shorter, and less dramatic, but just about as poignant masterpiece, which I was equally excited to hear underneath the church’s soberly starry ceiling, basking in the still rather inconspicuous, although more centrally placed, candlelight.
Even better, as if to get audience and artists in a French Romantic—and ecclesiastic—mood, the concert was going to open with two church pieces by César Franck starring his (and Fauré’s) beloved organ, and therefore also provide us with the perfect occasion to become better acquainted with the many possibilities of the imposing and mysterious instrument.
Due to—What else?—the relentless COVID-19 pandemic, this particular program had to be postponed not once but twice, and it apparently took no less than a small miracle, or at least a lot of dedication, for all the relevant parties to get together and be able to deliver before an audience. I, for one, could not help but feel grateful for the delays since they made it possible for me to attend, never mind that it meant going out on a miserably wet weekend evening. At least, I figured, I wouldn’t have to crash a stranger’s funeral this time.
A classic of the organ repertoire, Franck’s Chorale No. 3 is a complex 15-minute piece that requires no less than a certified virtuoso to pull it off. Luckily for us, we had him on Sunday in organist extraordinaire Federico Vallini, who also turned out to be the hardest working musician of the entire evening as he was featured in all three works on the program.
Equally divinely inspired, but clocking in at barely four minutes, was Franck’s glorious Panis Angelicus, which benefitted in no small part from the winning combination of the instrumental trio of harp, cello, and organ, and soprano Carla Ferrari’s crystal-clear voice and heavenly singing. And just like that, the “bread of angels” became food for soul for the rest of us.
When the time came for him to compose his own Requiem, Fauré resolutely chose to downsize the ostentatious pomp and circumstance usually expected from religious masses, and to focus on the wide range of human emotions and the perspective of eternal rest (requiem) instead, originally with a little help from a small orchestra, an organ, a mixed choir, and soprano and baritone soloists.
Constituted of several well-balanced movements of genuinely transcendental music, the early score was given a most respectful and heartfelt, rightly more liturgical than operatic, performance on Sunday evening, during which musicians and singers proved time and time again why Fauré’s deceptively modest effort has remained one of the most popular requiems of them all. Seriously, I did not even miss a full-blown Dies Irae.
Unsurprisingly, the music was naturally gorgeous to begin with. And then, its uplifting quality was sporadically heightened by special moments such as the exquisite violin solo in Sanctus, which readily managed to convey sheer beauty instead of mere sentimentality, and the baritone and soprano arias, which were superbly sung by, respectively, Paolo Ciavarelli and Carla Ferrari. One could almost sense countless putti placidly fluttering about in, ironically enough, one of the few Roman churches that does not feature any.
The thrilling performance was greeted by a well-deserved loud ovation, which prompted the powers that be to treat us to another splendid Libera me, doing again full justice to its epic yet intimate nature, before sending us off into the dark and rainy night, but with at least the gift of temporarily elevated spirits.