Guild already have to their credit a much-lauded intégrale
of the organ music of Marcel Dupré, played by Jeremy Filsell.
In February 2001, presumably as an addendum to that cycle, they recorded
the British choir, the Vasari Singers, accompanied by Filsell, in a
superb recital of choral music by Dupré [GMCD 7220], which included
the final movement of La France au Calvaire. Just about a year
later the team returned to the same venue, Douai Abbey, and set down
the world première recording of that work in its entirety. That
recording is issued here.
La France au Calvaire is a strange work. It
was prompted by Dupréís despair at the wartime devastation of
his beloved home city of Rouen. (Dupré had previously penned
another substantial organ and choral work in response to the carnage
of the First World War. This was De Profundis, Op. 18 (1917),
a dark and powerful setting of Psalm 130 which, by happy coincidence,
was included on the Vasariís earlier Dupré disc, mentioned above.)
For La France au Calvaire Dupré turned to a fellow native
of Rouen, the poet, René Herval, who fashioned for him a somewhat
hyperbolic libretto which the (excellent) notes rightly describe as
"curious". The piece was completed in time for the joint celebrations
in 1956 of the post-war restoration of Rouen Cathedral and of the five
hundredth anniversary of the posthumous pardoning of Joan of Arc.
The work is in eight movements, comprising a prologue,
a series of six tableaux and a finale. In the Prologue the allegorical
figure of France (here sung by Catherine Denley) kneels at the feet
of the crucified Christ, pleading with him to pardon her countrymenís
sins down the ages. Each of the following tableaux depicts a saint from
French history, including Joan of Arc, St. Denis (the patron saint of
France), St. Louis IX, St. Vincent de Paul, St. Clothilde and St. Theresa.
In the finale we return to Calvary where, amid prayers and praising
from the chorus (the people of France), divine pardon is duly bestowed.
Itís a moving, deeply felt work, featuring some atmospheric
and very effective writing for the chorus. The whole thing is underpinned
by a prodigiously varied and, Iím sure, fiendishly difficult organ part,
conceived on a massive scale. This is majestically and authoritatively
realised by Jeremy Filsell. The organ writing is extremely imaginative
(as are Filsellís registrations) and the part is colourful though not
in an ostentatious way. Indeed, the piece may strike many listeners
as more austere than might have been the case had not Dupré eschewed
the use of an orchestra. Austere it may be; forbidding, no. There is
a notably dramatic impulse behind much of the music and many of the
reflective passages in which the piece abounds are lovely indeed.
The four vocal soloists all have important parts and
all acquit themselves very well indeed. One point of interest is that
in the performance of the finale included on the earlier CD Helen Neeves
took the part of ĎLa Franceí (and very well too) whereas here the role
is allotted to Catherine Denley, presumably as specified by the composer
(I havenít seen a score). I think that the additional richness of a
contralto voice adds a certain something to these passages. In fact
I enjoyed Miss Denleyís singing throughout the disc. She sings eloquently
and with consistently beautiful tone. Helen Neeves too makes some lovely,
affecting sounds. Of all the soloists it is tenor, Matthew Beale, who
sounds the most French. The plangent, slightly nasal tone he deploys
here is absolutely right for this music. If I seem to rate baritone
Colin Campbell less highly than his peers itís because I found his voice
contained too much vibrato for my taste though it cannot be denied that
he is in command of his roles as St. Denis and the Voice of Christ..
Jeremy Filsell gives a stupendous account of the organ
part but he is always careful not to intrude at the expense of the singers.
The conducting of Jeremy Backhouse is spirited and responsive to the
many moods of the piece. Clearly he has prepared his singers with scrupulous
I have to admit that to some extent Iím still coming
to terms with this work, which I had not encountered before. However,
my listening for this review has already persuaded me that La France
au Calvaire is a very significant discovery. I fear that the work
is unlikely to make significant headway outside France so its availability
on CD is all the more welcome. (I must say Iím somewhat surprised that
no French choir has recorded it.) I cannot imagine that it will ever
receive more committed or expert advocacy than it does from the performers
assembled here. Guild accord them a superb recording, which is beautifully
balanced (the organ making its presence properly felt without ever overwhelming
the singers) and very detailed.
The notes by David Gammie and Jeremy Backhouse are
all that could be desired. They comprise an edited version of Gammieís
excellent biographical introduction from the earlier CD while I suspect
it is Backhouse who contributes the concise but extremely pertinent
notes introducing each movement of the Dupré work and also each
of the three smaller scale pieces. Full French texts and English translations
are provided and, unlike some labels, all the printing is crystal clear.
To complete the programme the Vasari Singers perform
motets by three pupils of Dupré, two of which, those by Alain
and Langlais, were new to me and, indeed, receive their first recordings
here. Langlaisí Festival Alleluia is a setting of just one word
(ĎAlleluiaí) like the marvellous setting by the American, Randall Thompson.
Unlike Thompson, Langlais accompanies his choir (a virtuoso organ part,
effortlessly despatched by Jeremy Filsell). His setting contrasts rhythmically
exuberant passages of jubilation with passages in which joy is expressed
with more quiet serenity. Itís an interesting piece but I must say I
think it would have been more effective at half the length. Filsellís
accompaniment is superb but I wonder what the piece sounds like with
the addition of the optional trumpets and timpani?
The Alain work is simple and has a grave beauty which
reminded me of the choral music of Pierre Villette. According to the
notes, itís an "adaptation" by his sister, the distinguished
organist Marie-Claire Alain. Iím not entirely clear if this means she
has arranged an organ piece for à capella choir. It matters
not; the result is a lovely little devotional work, serenely sung here.
Messiaenís luxuriant, ecstatic O Sacrum Convivium is a wonderfully
rapt piece which I first sang when still at school. Iíve loved it ever
since. This is one of the most sensuous pieces of religious music I
know and whenever I hear it I regret that itís Messiaenís sole work
of this kind. It is splendidly sung here though I could have wished
for a touch more mystery; perhaps the microphone placings were just
a little too close?
All in all, this is a splendid disc. Both Guild and
the performers are to be congratulated on their enterprise in making
it. I have been very glad to acquaint myself with this major work by
Dupré and I hope many other collectors will take advantage of
this release to hear it.
Very strongly recommended.
See also review by Robert
Farr and John