It came as something of a surprise to find that it was as long ago as 2005 that I enjoyed
another disc of French music by Robert Sharpe and his Truro choir. Now, on a different label comes a further single-composer recital and there's a link between the two in that the composer represented on the first disc, Maurice Duruflé, was a pupil of Louis Vierne, whose music is featured here. In a sense this present set is something of an envoi
because, since the recordings were made it's been announced that Robert Sharpe is to leave Truro after six successful years there and that from September 2008 he will become Master of the Music at York Minster. Happily, Truro will have continuity, for Sharpe's successor there will be Christopher Gray, the Assistant Director of Music at Truro since 2000. As is evident from these discs - and from the aforementioned Duruflé recital - both musicians really know their way around the cathedral's 1887 Father Willis organ and also how to exploit the cathedral's acoustic to best advantage.
To judge from the quality of the singing here I'd say that Robert Sharpe is bequeathing his choir to Christopher Gray in excellent shape. The contribution of the choir to this collection is fairly limited for Vierne left only a small corpus of church choral music and we have it all here. The two early motets - a hymn-like setting of Tantum Ergo
and a setting for unison trebles of Ave Maria
- are pleasant enough but not especially distinctive. In between comes Ave verum
, which again is sung by all the trebles but which, in fact, is really a solo item, composed for Arlette Taskin, to whom Vierne was married from 1899, though the marriage broke down after a few years and ended in divorce. Ave verum
, however, dates from happier times and was first performed by the newlyweds shortly after their wedding. It works well sung by a group of trebles.
The Messe Solennelle
is a much grander - and more interesting - affair than any of these early pieces. It's on a large scale and was originally written for accompaniment by the two organs, that were common in French cathedrals, the grand orgue
and the smaller choir organ, but nowadays it's quite common to hear the organ part played on just one instrument and I'm sure that's what happens here. Christopher Gray and the engineers ensure that the organ introduction to the Kyrie is suitably attention grabbing and this sets the tone for a splendid performance. Of course, the Truro choir is recognisably English in timbre but I don't feel that matters in the slightest. The main point is that they sing very well indeed and I particularly savoured the full-throated, assured singing of the trebles. They're fearless and accurate in the high-lying lines of the Gloria and, indeed, the whole choir makes a very exciting sound when singing full out. However, they also demonstrate an ability to sing quiet, lyrical passages with sensitivity and suppleness and I enjoyed this performance of the Mass very much.
The other vocal item, Les Angélus
, is a much later work and it's somewhat unusual in being scored for solo voice and organ. The only other version that I've ever seen - but not heard - is a 1987 version now on Hyperion Helios (CDH55044
). There the singer is a baritone, Gordon Jones, but the Truro account, in employing a female singer, may have the edge in authenticity for Vierne wrote it for a female singer, his companion Madeleine Richepin. I'd not previously encountered the present performer, Monica Brett-Crowther, but she has a very pleasing voice, with a nice, warm rounded tone. Her vocal production is clear and her French sounds to be very accurate. The poems that Vierne chose are not exactly out of the top drawer in terms of literary distinction but Vierne made excellent settings of them and the music deserves to be better known. The work receives committed advocacy here from Miss Brett-Crowther and she's sensitively accompanied by Robert Sharpe.
All the remaining music in the set is for solo organ and is played by Sharpe. The Messe Basse
follows the French tradition of the organ Mass whereby the organist would play while the Mass was said - or mumbled - by the priest in Latin with no congregational participation. These organ Masses were intended to be an aid to devotion. I have to say, as a Mass-goer myself, that I don't find much about Vierne's work that would be an aid to devotion, rather the reverse, in fact. As David Gammie observes in his truly excellent notes, much of the music could easily carry secular titles and has few obvious religious connections. Nonetheless, the music is interesting and, to be fair, a couple of the movements - the Elévation and the Communion - are properly meditative while the energetic Sortie rounds things off in ebullient style.
Sharpe also offers the Triptyque
, a collection of three short pieces, described by Vierne's biographer, Bernard Gavoty, as 'mystical impressions of monastic simplicity'. I'm afraid I thought the music meanders a bit - though that's very much a matter of subjective taste - and I wonder if it's wise to listen to all three pieces together.
Of much greater interest is the late and rarely heard Messe basse pour les défunts
. This is a powerful, dark and deeply felt organ Mass in six movements. I'd never heard this before but I think it's a most impressive and a very strong work. The looming, solemn Prélude has great power and Sharpe plays it commandingly. Near the end (4:21) he achieves a most curious effect on quiet warbling reeds, which he sustains to the end of the piece. Quite what registration he employs to achieve this I don't know but it's extraordinary and he obtains a similar effect in the fifth movement, Communion. Also of note is a serene Elévation (movement IV), where for a few brief moments a mood of peacefulness is attained amid gently rippling arpeggios. The work culminates in a massive, imposing funeral march, which is on a very grand scale, albeit including some quieter interludes and finishing in a subdued manner.
Each of the two discs is rounded off by one of Vierne's well-known showpieces, both of which Robert Sharpe delivers with style and panache.
This is an impressive collection. The standard of performance is uniformly excellent and the engineers have done a splendid job. As I've already said, the notes are first rate. This is a splendid Cornish tribute to Louis Vierne and a very fitting farewell to Truro by Robert Sharpe.