Alfred Bruneau's composition is so extravagant that few ever dare to perform it. A London church dared to try - and triumphed
When Stravinsky wrote his own sober if seductive Mass setting, he stressed the importance of using emotionally cold music to ensure nothing obscured its spiritual purpose; so what he would have made of the Requiem Mass by Alfred Bruneau, a French composer (1857-1934) of crazily overheated Romantic ambition, one dreads to think. But then he probably never heard it, because Bruneau’s Requiem is too extravagant to get performances. It’s known by legend rather than experience. And no doubt prompted by the legend, crowds of people filed on All Souls’ Day into St Mary Magdalene, Paddington, west London, where it was done not just in concert but liturgically.
To call this an “Event” would be an understatement. There was a full orchestra and chorus. Brass ensembles lined the aisles. Up in the sanctuary with the priests were several harpists and a boys’ choir. And it was astonishing: a seething tumult of excess combining eccentricity, exoticism and spectacular effects (owing too much to Berlioz) with fabulous vulgarity – though of a passionate, somehow uplifting kind. I’ve never known a Requiem to leave the congregation/audience so wreathed in smiles.
The reason for it all was that St Mary’s – an exquisite jewel of 19th-century Gothic built by GE Street – has just been renovated. Beautifully. So it was celebrating, with a vengeance and with unexpectedly high-powered musicianship. You might have thought the days were gone when ordinary parish churches, Catholic or Anglican, could put on such a show. Happily not.
Coincidentally, another 19th-century Gothic jewel, the Palace of Westminster, was the inspiration for two separate musical events the same week. One was a new work for viola and orchestra that reflected on what happened after the great Westminster fire of 1834, when decisions were taken to build a modern palace with a bygone aesthetic of classical structure wrapped in Gothic detail. Called Four Facades, it is composed by Benjamin Graves. I’m not sure that its frenetic polystylism delivered as intended. But it was well performed by soloist Stephen Upshaw with the alarmingly named Riot Ensemble. And with strange synchronicity, its premiere took place the day after Birmingham Royal Ballet brought to London a new piece based on the 1834 fire itself – or, at least, on Turner’s famous painting of the event. I claim no special insight into modern ballet, but the visual impact of Ignite, its dancers clothed like flickering flames in red and yellow, thrilled me. As did an incendiary score by composer Kate Whitely, whose lyrical energy suggested an English Pastoral take on American Minimalism. If that isn’t a paradox too far.