Aureole etc.




Golden Age singers

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Faure songs
Charlotte de Rothschild (soprano);

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Camille SAINT-SAENS (1835-1921)
Requiem, op. 54 (1878) *
Alfred BRUNEAU (1857-1934)

Requiem (1886) **
Charles GOUNOD (1818-1893)

Ave Maria (after Bach), Mors et Vita: Beati qui lavant
Georges BIZET (1838-1875)
Agnus Dei (arr. from "L’Arlesiènne": Intermezzo), Te Deum: Te ergo
César FRANCK (1822-1890)

Messe à 3 voix: Panis angelicus, Rebecca: Encore un jour qui fuit
Jules MASSENET (1842-1912)

Marie-Magdeleine: O bien aimée, La Vierge, légende sacrée: Souvenez-vous, Vierge Marie, Extase de la Vierge
Gabriel FAURE (1845-1924)

En prière
GOUNOD

Rédemption: Pentecôte, Repentir, Gallia
Françoise Pollet (soprano), Mary Saint-Palais (soprano)**, Magali Chalmeau-Damonte (mezzo-soprano)*, Sylvie Sullé (mezzo-soprano)**, Jean-Luc Viala (tenor)* **, Nicolas Alvenq (baritone)*, Laurent Naouri (bass-baritone)**, Jacques Amade (organ)*, Choeur Régional Vittoria d’Ile de France (chorus master: Michel Piquemal), Orchestra National d’Ile de France/Jacques Mercier
Recorded 1989*, 1994**, 1996 (CD 2)
RCA RED SEAL 74321 886 882 [2 CDs: 70:41+71:18]


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Saint-Saëns’ Requiem, which with the Bruneau takes up the first CD, was composed in a single week. If this fact, combined with its subsequent neglect, leads one to suppose a piece of instant craftsmanship, the results are very much more than that. From the stabbing opening (which returns at the close) to the striking organ entries during the Dies Irae it is clearly born of true feeling. Its more intimate moments contain an abundance of inventive textures to differentiate it from other Requiems one has heard and, if the ear protests that sheer melodic appeal is lacking, the last section provides this too. I can see that it will never take the place of the Fauré, that most popular of all French Requiems, but surely all those who enjoy the latter piece will find much to attract them here.

Alfred Bruneau was, like Gustave Charpentier, a friend of Emile Zola and a follower of the Italian veristi rather than the impressionism of Debussy. His fairly early Requiem contains much that is striking and surprising, together with passages of more Gounod-like melodic swing. Whether the surprises add up to a coherent whole, and whether they will satisfy on later hearings when the surprise element has worn off, is difficult to say of a work so rarely encountered. Those with a taste for late-19th Century choral music will surely enjoy finding out. They will get to know both works in heartfelt performances and pleasing if not very detailed recordings. In view of the obvious conviction of all concerned I see no point in going into detail except to give an encouraging nod to the tenor whose vibrato seemed excessive in 1989 but who had it well under control by 1994.

The writer of the note states that the Bruneau Requiem had only three performances (1886 in London and Paris, 1907 in Amsterdam) before Mercier revived it and made the present recording. I can tell him of at least one other: the work was performed in London by the Bach Choir under Sir Charles Villiers Stanford in 1895. Letters from Bruneau to Stanford are quoted in Plunket Greene’s biography of the latter, and it can be seen that Stanford found certain aspects of the piece "disquieting", particularly the "bouche fermée" effects which he asked to have altered. Bruneau told him firmly: "Unfortunately, it will be impossible for me to modify the bouche fermée passages which surprise you so much. They have their raison d’être, their necessity in the poetic context of the work... But, I beg you, do not hesitate in any way and if the audacities of my Requiem disturb you, simply send the score back to me, and this will not prevent us from remaining friends, as in the past" (Stanford put up with the bouche fermée and went on to conduct the work).

Those who acquire this album for the sake of two interesting and neglected French Requiems will also be taking on board a string of sanctimonious French religious pieces, often decked out in mushy arrangements, the anonymity of which has my understanding. Certainly, if I’d trashed up the Bach-Gounod in this way I wouldn’t want the neighbours to know. However, these "twofers" usually work out at about the price of a single full-price CD so I wouldn’t let that put you off, after all you can always throw the companion disc away.

I suppose I could leave it at that. But since the package is actually touted as a star vehicle for Françoise Pollet I suppose I should say something about her, too. She has an interesting voice, very far from typically French with a dark lower register and sumptuous upper tones. The comparison which comes to mind is Mirella Freni, and I should say that I would enjoy her far more in Puccini or Mascagni. When she uses her full heft on the higher notes she can be thrilling, and here she sounds secure. In mezzo pianos the voice loses its focus and the vibrato becomes wobbly. There is some ungainly scooping at times – I should hate to hear "En prière" given such heavily operatic treatment with its original piano accompaniment – and altogether too much of this is a model of how to present such music in its worst light. She might also have realised that discretion is the greater part of valour and done the Bizet Agnus Dei at least a tone lower. The viciously un-vocal climax is positively screeched out. This piece is not, as the note-writer seems to think, part of the early Te Deum but an arrangement by Ernest Guiraud of the Intermezzo from "L’Arlésienne". It was never intended to be sung at all.

Of course there are those who like their religion with plenty of artificial sugar in it – otherwise John Rutter would have been out of business long ago – but the disc is not wholly suitable for these people either, since there is also an attempt to pair up the familiar with some less well-known items. Thus, alongside "Panis Angelicus" we have a suggestion that Franck’s oratorio "Rebecca" might deserve another look. For all I know the suggestion may be quite misleading since, on the evidence of the attractive movement included here, Gounod’s "Rédemption" would call for revival. In reality, though it has its moments, I wouldn’t condemn my worst enemy to sit through the whole thing. Fortunately "Gallia" is on hand to point out the unwisdom of reviving Gounod wholesale. The famous "Jerusalem" finale, modestly stirring even in this flabby performance, is no compensation for the endless sequences and chromatic burbling that precedes it.

Still, forget CD 2 and enjoy the two Requiems.

Christopher Howell

 



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