The Fauré Requiem is one of those pieces that
have become more and more popular as the years have gone by. In some
ways, this is quite hard to account for; the piece lacks the hectic
drama of the Verdi or Berlioz settings, or the variety and majesty of
the Mozart. In terms of tempo, it hardly ever gets out of second gear.
Yet so perfect is it in every detail, so satisfying its progress from
the stern opening to the comforting close, that it never fails to make
a profound impact.
Its other wonder is that it is performable by the most
modest of amateur choral societies, yet repays amply a thoroughly prepared
performance by forces of the highest quality. Here we have the radiant
sound of Winchester Cathedral Choir, with two excellent soloists, sensitively
and ably directed by David Hill on his current home ground.
This recording gives us what can be described as the
‘original’ version, in that it uses a small orchestra and all-male chorus
as in its first performance. Hill takes an approach which cleverly combines
austerity with expressive flexibility; the very opening illustrates,
too, what a very wide dynamic range he is able to command, and this
remains a feature throughout. Nancy Argenta and Simon Keenlyside are
ideal soloists for this approach, and both sing impeccably.
Of course the sound of the all-male choir will not
please everybody, close though it may be to Fauré’s original
intention. However, the Winchester trebles are genuinely fine, with
an attractive but penetrating ‘edge’ to their tone, and an ability to
muster considerable power. Equally, their unforced purity in the Sanctus
and In Paradisum movements is balm to the ear. A disappointment
in the In Paradisum movement, on the other hand, is that Stephen
Farr’s important organ semiquavers are all but inaudible. The Bournemouth
Sinfonietta accompanies stylishly throughout.
The disc is completed by more ethereal music. Fauré’s
short Cantique is nowadays a familiar item, though more than
welcome in a lovely performance like this; Villette and Roger-Ducasse
are another matter, and may well be unknown to British listeners. Do
give them a hearing, because you will not be disappointed. The two unaccompanied
Villette motets are gems, both rising from intimate openings to climaxes
of powerful exultation. The Lydian harmonies of O magnum mysterium
bring about an ending of magical delicacy.
The Roger-Ducasse items are, perhaps, even more beguiling.
Accompanied by organ, they feature the voice of young Kenan Burrows,
a treble soloist of great beauty and purity of tone. In fact it’s hard
to imagine these solos done better, for Kenan also has the gift of unobtrusively
controlled breathing and musical but natural phrasing. The three motets
make a convincing group, the middle one, Crux Fidelis, being
the mot impassioned and dramatic.
Of course, the catalogue is packed with distinguished
versions of this Requiem, not only from top British conductors such
as Hickox, Ledger and Guest, but naturally from French maestri too.
I believe this one can live quite happily in that company, while its
wonderful complementary items make it surely a very strong contender.