About this Recording
NBD0020 - LANCINO, T.: Requiem (Grant-Murphy, Gubisch, Skelton, Courjal, Radio France Choir, Radio France Philharmonic Orchestra, Inbal) (Blu-ray Audio)

Thierry Lancino (b. 1954)


Thierry Lancino was commissioned to compose a vast score for soloists, chorus and orchestra by Radio France, the Koussevitzky Music Foundations and the French Ministry of Culture “in order to renew the tradition of the Requiem.” Lancino’s powerful and audacious work keeps in the tradition of the form but is by no means traditional, as it casts the Requiem in a radically new dramatic perspective, reconceiving it as a sacred oratorio, or in his own words: “an epic fresco.” Provocative, singular, the work explodes the theme of Time and Death, giving it a new dimension.

Pondering various encounters with Death over the course of his life brought about a metaphysical relationship for the composer with Death and Time that added to his burgeoning artistic need for a Requiem. Lancino’s inspiration came while re-examining the Mass for the Dead’s Latin sources, wherein he realized the existence of a pagan presence within the liturgical text: “Dies irae…teste David cum Sibylla” (“Day of wrath…as announced by David and the Sibyl.”)

Indeed, Lancino was convinced that his Requiem should unfold as a dialogue between the pagan Sibyl—Latin from the Greek “Sibylla” meaning “prophetess”—and the biblical David; the personage of the Sibyl, namely the Cumaean Sibyl, would serve as a counterweight to the liturgical rite. He sought out Pascal Quignard to write the libretto.

According to Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Apollo granted the Cumaean Sibyl a wish for eternal life—or as many years as there are grains in her handful of sand—in exchange for her virginity, but punished her on a technicality when she later refused the god’s love, allowing her body to wither away as she had failed to ask for eternal youth. She grew smaller with age and ultimately, only her voice remained. Jumping forward in literature, the epigraph to T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Waste Land” looks back, citing a single moment from Petronius’s Satyricon: “For with my own eyes I saw the very Sibyl hanging in her jar, and when the children asked her, ‘Sibyl, what do you want?’ she answered ‘I want to die.’”

This Requiem offers an exploration on Death and Time. David is about to die; the Sibyl, her gods long dead, cannot herself attain death. While David is appealing for eternal life, the Sibyl seeks annihilation. This explosive paradox had been laying in this verse for seven centuries without having been challenged. It becomes here both the point of departure and the dramatic impulse for the Requiem. These oppositional stances are given voice textually, philosophically, and of course musically—ultimately a spiritual quest.

Within the work myriad juxtapositions occur and provide the listener opportunity for reflection and reevaluation; if equally important on dramatic and musical levels, they are most discernable at the textual level. The Latin liturgical verses of the Requiem Mass are generally kept in their traditional order, but are interspersed and interwoven with other texts in French, Latin and Greek, often with contrasting sentiment. David sings here in Latin, as this David is the Christian emblematic figure; the Sibyl prophesies in Greek. The modern French bridges the classical languages with contemporary time.

With the choir functioning as a Greek chorus of sorts, the four soloists are the oratorio’s principal actors. David is sung by the tenor and the Sibyl by the mezzo-soprano. The soprano is the mortal, suffering Everyman, and the bass represents the warrior side of David.

The musical landscape is wide and far-reaching, yet the work’s palette remains fully in consonance with itself and its lexicon steers clear from any dogmatic or academic approach. In the Prologue, thirteen sacred-sounding calls on percussion—bass drum, tubular bell, gong, Tibetan bowl—invoke in a sacred fashion the Sibyl, who announces her presence with a Mediterranean flavor of ancient times, with evocative sounds of balafon, waterphone and prepared piano. In the Kyrie, the Sibyl’s anguished cries in Greek (“I want to die!”) vie with the chorus’s liturgical text, which seems to grow exponentially into an infinite cry. After an abrupt cut-off, more consonant tones emerge and, like a growing resonance, lead into the Gradual.

David seems to wrestle with himself: the confident warrior David of the Psalm XVIII, enveloped in woodwinds, fades to an anguished David pleading with his god, as he is ushered swiftly and inexorably to the Dies irae. Yet even the violence of Judgment is trumped by the interjection of the Sibyl’s call again for her own end. She, in turn, is interrupted by David the warrior, who takes up the liturgy once more, warning of immense dread. With the added weight of the choir, the focus again returns to Judgment (Mors stupebit), shock and awe.

Following the Rex tremendae, the suddenly spare setting of the soprano soloist—first alone, then joined by cellos (Ingemisco)—returns us to an intimate and human level, as the Everyman quietly begs salvation. In keeping with the pattern of philosophical juxtaposition heretofore established, the Confutatis arrives to break the tone of salvation with piercing percussion. It is (tenor) David who emerges with a plaintive “Voca me cum benedictis” and is able to, for the moment, quiet the Sibyl.

In the Lacrimosa, an intimate quartet of soloists are not at odds, with the Sibyl’s pleas for death jelling congruously with “Dona eis requiem.” The Lacrimosa quartet is gently supported by the chorus, which brings a period of solace and respite, which continues into the Offertorium.

The Sibyl now recounts (in French) her pitiable journey through the underworld (Song of the Sibyl), vainly imploring her long-dead gods to allow her to become like them. The Sibyl is imploring Demeter (in Greek) to sacrifice bulls for her own death. Her pagan call to sacrifice is juxtaposed with the Offertorium, which recalls the halted sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham, whose faith granted him a renewal of God’s covenant to provide him with countless descendants. The Greek and Latin texts of the chorus seem supportive until the very end of the Sibyl’s aria, where they come to a paradoxical impasse, with the chorus asking God in Latin to “make them pass from death to life” while the Sibyl asks in Greek “to be granted the end of life in death.”

A celestial and fantastical orchestral interlude bisects the Sanctus, accelerating and climbing into the Song of David; David senses his end is nigh and recalls (Quignard’s variant of) the biblical verse, affirming to himself that “none who lives and believes in me will die forever.” A slowly descending Agnus Dei begins a cappella and then gathers instrumental accompaniment, moving in counterpoint, which gives way seamlessly to the closing Dona eis requiem. There follows the sole, ardent duet for David and the Sibyl. A luminous soprano line takes over as the two voices dissolve into the choir, ending with an ambiguous open fifth chord.

Lancino’s Requiem does not choose, but rather, as Quignard puts it, “leaves face-to-face the two desires, the two pains”, offering no answer. It leaves the listener facing himself and looking within. It seeks “to reach in everyone these remote territories where souls take shelter,” in the composer’s own words, “and to touch the mystery of Death.”

Ben Finane

Close the window