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alternatively Crotchet

John Herbert FOULDS (1880-1939)
A World Requiem Op. 60 (1918-1921)
Jeanne-Michèle Charbonnet (soprano)
Catherine Wyn-Rogers (mezzo)
Stuart Skelton (tenor)
Gerald Finlay (baritone)
Trinity Boys Choir
Crouch End Festival Chorus
BBC Symphony Chorus
BBC Symphony Orchestra/Leon Botstein
rec. live, Royal Albert Hall, London, 11 November 2007
Hybrid SACD, DSD
Texts and translation into French and German included
CHANDOS CHSA5058 [45:08 + 44:50]
Experience Classicsonline

The music of John Foulds has undergone quite a revival on disc in the past few years, most notably thanks to the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, Sakari Oramo and Warner Classics (review 1, review 2). Here is a work which was performed for the first time in 81 years on Remembrance Sunday 2007 in the Royal Albert Hall, London and has since divided critical opinion greatly. The “Lost Requiem” - as Jessica Duchen has dubbed it - was recorded live on that night by Chandos and has been issued very promptly on two hybrid SACDs.

The World Requiem is subtitled “A tribute to the memory of the Dead – a message of consolation to the bereaved of all countries”. Its message seems to resonate today as strongly as it must have done in the 1920s. In general, it is more conventional than music Foulds wrote soon afterwards such as the three Mantras from Avatara. The musical language is often Elgarian with just the occasional reaching forwards to quarter-tones, such as in the Confessio (track 3, disc 1). But Foulds was master of the large forces he required, at least compositionally and, I would suspect, on the podium too in the 1920s. The contribution of Foulds’s wife, Maud MacCarthy should not go unrecognised. She put together the part-Latin, mostly English text and led the orchestra in annual performances that took place on Armistice Day from 1923 to 1926.

There are two parts, each with ten sections which play continuously for about three-quarters of an hour. I won’t try to describe the music much further – it demands to be heard and individuals will react differently. But, to me, it seems to achieve its consolatory aim, to radiate pacifism and tolerance, and to cross religious denominational boundaries. And I don’t feel it outstays its welcome for a single minute.

If reaction to the belated revival of this work has been mixed, everyone seems to agree that the 2007 performance was a success, the only criticism I have come across being levelled at soprano Jeanne-Michèle Charbonnet’s wobbles. These are most noticeable early on and, whilst not denying the existence of a wobble, I feel inclined to defend her a little. Indeed I wonder, slightly tongue-in-cheek, whether Foulds might not have approved. Surely this small idiosyncrasy hardly detracts from the overall performance of a large team of musicians who performed with great conviction? Gerald Finlay is simply superb and Leon Botstein’s overall grip also demands superlatives. Bravo to the other soloists, the orchestra and the various choruses too. This was a memorable occasion in November as heard on the radio in my living room and I am very grateful that it has been preserved.

What can hardly be controversial about this set is the high quality of both the recording and the presentation – both are truly excellent. I have only listened in two-channel stereo but the sound-picture has great depth and clarity, and presents a well-balanced, natural perspective. As usual, the BBC radio broadcast from the Albert Hall on the night sounded good to me through a decent, old-fashioned analogue tuner. But this recording is something else – real Premier League stuff. It is as if one were actually in the hall but without disadvantages such as fidgety neighbours. Just occasionally there is audible noise from the audience but this is trivial. I imagine that the decision to omit applause was easy, certainly I would be throwing brickbats right now if it had been otherwise.

In terms of presentation, the discs come in cardboard slips in a thin box with each part of the work complete on one disc. The picture on the front is of the ruins of the Grand Place in Cambrai, France and was taken around 1917. The booklet has 116 pages, the full text in three languages, pictures of the composer, his wife, and the performers at the 2007 event. There are also interesting essays by Calum MacDonald and Simon Heffer plus facsimiles from the programme of the first performance.

Proposing this for “recording of the month” was an easy decision. I shall be surprised if it isn’t one of my discs of the year too. Ventures like this give one hope for the future of recorded music; whether there is any hope for the world itself is another question. Foulds and MacCarthy seemed convinced of it in the 1920s and so did the artists who gave this magnificent 21st century performance. Let us hope they are right.

Patrick C Waller


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