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Musique Sacrée Française
Gabriel FAURÉ (1845-1924) Requiem* [40’41”]; Cantique de Jean Racine [4’59”]; Ave Verum, Op. 65 No 1 [3’29”]; Salve Regina, Op. 67, No 1 [2’39”]; Ave Maria, Op. 93 [4’35”]; Messe basse [11’50”]
Maurice DURUFLÉ (1902-1986) Quatre Motets [10’04”] Messe “Cum Jubilo” [18’33”]
Olivier MESSIAEN (1900-1992) O sacrum convivium [4’37”]
Camille SAINT-SAËNS (1835-1921) O salutaris Hostia [2’08”]
Hector BERLIOZ (1803-1869) L’Enfance du Christ – Shepherd’s Farewell [3’25”]
Charles GOUNOD (1818-1893) Ave Maria [2’17”]
César FRANCK (1822-1890) Panis Angelicus [3’28”]
Francis POULENC (1899-1963) Ave Verum [2’31”]; Salve Regina [4’49”]; Exultate Deo [2’48”]; Quatre Motets pour le temps de Noël [11’10”]; Quatre Petites Prières de Saint François d’Assise [7’06”]; Quatre Motets pour un temps de pénitence [14’33”] *Camilla Otaki (soprano); Mark Collins (baritone); Briony Shaw (violin) London Musici/Martin Outram
Richard Pearce (organ) Choir of Trinity College, Cambridge directed by Richard Marlow Recording dates and locations not given BMG ARTISTES RÉPERTOIRES 74321 987262 [75’00” + 74’03”]

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Much of the music on these two well-filled CDs comes from a couple of discs originally released on the Conifer label. The Fauré Requiem and Cantique together with the Duruflé and Messiaen items were on Conifer CDCF176, from 1990. The sets of Poulenc motets came from a recital of that composer’s music, including the Mass in G, issued, I think, in 1988 (CDCF151). I’ve been unable to trace the sources of the remaining items and BMG give no clue whatsoever as to when and where they were recorded. (I suspect most of the music was set down in Trinity College Chapel though I can’t be certain that the chapel would have been big enough to accommodate comfortably the forces needed for the Fauré Requiem.)

For the Requiem Richard Marlow opts to use the edition for which the accompaniment was reconstructed by the French scholar, Jean-Michel Nectoux. He based his work on a set of original and authentic orchestral parts, which only came to light in 1969. The orchestral forces used fall between those employed by John Rutter in his fine edition of the original 1894 score and the large orchestra required for the 1901 edition which was for so long the standard performing version.

Unfortunately, as is always the case with this BMG series, there are no notes (apart from a brief and superficial overview, in French only, of the whole programme). So there’s no information about the important question of the version of the score that is played here. Such information as I have has come from a review in Gramophone magazine (April 1989) by Michael Oliver of a Harmonia Mundi recording by Philippe Herreweghe, which was, I believe, the first to use the Nectoux score. I think this Trinity performance was its second recording. In brief, perhaps the most audible difference between Nectoux and Rutter lies in the more prominent horn parts in the Nectoux score. This is especially noticeable in the ‘Offertoire’ and in the ‘Dies Irae’ section of the ’Libera me.’ Because there’s a rather fuller orchestral palette the organ is a little less prominent in the Nectoux edition as compared with the Rutter.

This was the first time I’d heard the Nectoux score. I found it fascinating and highly effective, though I retain a marginal preference for Rutter. In all honesty the differences between the two are not enormous and, so far as I know, the vocal parts are not affected at all. Unless one craves the “authentic” French choral tone it would be hard to imagine a better rendition of the Nectoux score than this present one. Trinity has long been one of Britain’s finest collegiate/cathedral choirs under Richard Marlow’s wise and disciplined guidance. Here the choir sings quite beautifully, giving a performance which has clearly been prepared scrupulously but which never sounds studied in any way.

Camilla Otaki sings the ‘Pie Jesu’ with poised sincerity and great purity of tone while Mark Griffiths has just the sort of light, flexible baritone that suits this music. There is also a sweet-toned violin obbligato in the Sanctus. The recorded sound is generally sympathetic and natural. My only slight reservation is that on my equipment the orchestral bass sounded a bit too heavy in relation to the size of the choir. However, that didn’t seriously impair my enjoyment and may bother other listeners even less. This is a dedicated and faithful performance of this lovely work and I’d regard it as a top recommendation.

The Requiem is the only work requiring orchestral accompaniment. The other accompanied pieces, such as the Cantique, feature organ accompaniments. In the Cantique Marlow adopts a nice flowing tempo, which the work needs if it is not to sound somnolent.

I recently reviewed a performance of the Duruflé motets under the composer’s direction. www.musicwe.uk.net/classrev/2004/May04/Durufle_requiem.htm In terms of choral technique (impeccable), blend and control there is simply no comparison between that version and this Trinity account. The Cambridge choir wins hands down. That said, the composer gets more bite from his French singers. Whilst by no means dismissing the authority of the composer’s own recording, I’d opt any time to listen to the Trinity version for sheer pleasure. My personal favourite in the set, the exquisite Ubi Caritas, is sung here with rapt beauty.

The Messe “Cum Jubilo” was also included in the same Duruflé set. There it was performed in the version with organ and orchestral accompaniment. Here there is only an organ. The chorus (unusually comprising baritones only, possibly a monastic allusion by Duruflé) sounds much smaller on the Trinity recording. The Cambridge singers lack the fervour and timbre of their French rivals but score on flexibility and tuning. I find that the reduced, organ-only accompaniment is an advantage because it imparts a greater sense of intimacy. Mark Griffiths is an excellent soloist, coping well with the high tessitura in his solo in the Gloria.

The quietly ecstatic Messiaen motet is quite beautifully done. The singers display marvellous control and the serene “Alleluias” near the very end are quite magical. It was a great mistake, I think to follow this with the fairly trite Saint-Saëns setting (for unison sopranos). In particular the jaunty organ accompaniment comes as a jolt after the Messiaen. Frankly, the inclusion of this piece just seems to me to be filling space on the CD for the sake of it. Its inclusion adds nothing to the overall recital and no one would complain of being short-changed if the well-filled CD had just been a couple of minutes shorter.

The second CD opens with another group of Fauré pieces. The Ave Verum is a tender, simple setting for two-part female choir and organ. It is sung with great poise. The Salve Regina is for solo soprano and organ. I assume the soloist is a member of the choir but she is not credited, which is a pity as she sings beautifully. The same singer (I think) and a colleague are featured in Ave Maria. Both sing radiantly with flawless intonation and they blend together exceptionally well. Both these pieces are little gems.

The Messe Basse, for soprano solo (here unnamed) and female choir with organ accompaniment is a revised version of Fauré’s earlier Messe des Pêcheurs de Villerville. The setting comprises a Kyrie, Sanctus, Benedictus and Agnus Dei and is distinguished by an atmosphere of total innocence. The Trinity performance captures the work’s beguiling simplicity and is a delight from start to finish.

I love Berlioz’s enchanting Shepherd’s Farewell and it is well sung here but it is sung in English, which does seem incongruous in a programme otherwise sung in Latin or French. The Gounod and Franck items both feature good soloists, presumably from the choir. Some may find the tenor in the Franck too light and obviously English. Personally, in this essentially simple piece, I’d take that any day in preference to a “big name” operatic tenor. The soprano in the Gounod is chaste and pure in tone.

Finally, some superb Poulenc miniatures. The first three items are not, perhaps, as well known as the sets of motets. All three are very well done, though perhaps a greater sense of unbridled joy would have been appropriate in Exultate Deo. The Christmas motets are entirely successful. The rapt mystery of ‘O magnum mysterium’ suits this choir to a “tee” Only in the concluding ‘Hodie Christus natus est’ did I feel that they could have let themselves go a bit more. The St Francis settings, for male voices only, are quite austere and restrained. They also exhibit more harmonic astringency and adventurousness at times than the Christmas motets. They are very well done here with a good plangent tenor solo in the fourth setting, ‘O mes très chers frères’. To end the selection the penitential motets are splendidly done. These are compelling performances of compelling music. In particular the last of the set, ‘Tristis est anima mea’ is sung with great feeling and sense of occasion.

I’m afraid that the only blot on this release is the usual one with this series, namely very poor documentation - and such documentation as is provided is set in such small type as to be virtually illegible. There are a number of errors. Mark Griffiths’ name is given as “Park Griffiths (sic)” and the short essay is entitled “Musique Française a capella” which is plain nonsense given how much of the music is actually accompanied. Most seriously, nowhere is there any indication that we are hearing the choir of Trinity College, Cambridge. Needless to say there are no texts or translations.

However, flaws in the documentation should not detract from the overall appeal of this set. Without exception the performances are of the highest order and the music itself is exquisite. The recorded sound is very good. I have enjoyed this set enormously and I know I’ll return to it in the future with great pleasure. Very strongly recommended indeed.

John Quinn





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