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French Choral Music
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918) Trois Chansons de Charles d’Orléans
Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937) Trois Chansons
Olivier MESSIAEN (1908-1992) Cinq Rechants
André JOLIVET (1905-1974) Epithalame
Ernest CHAUSSON (1855-1899) Ballata
SWR Vokalensemble of Stuttgart/Rupert Huber
Recorded at Sendesaal Villla Berg SWR Stuttgart, Jan-March 1999; November 2000
HÄNSSLER CLASSIC CD 93.055 [50.49]

This is a first rate assemblage of some of the best and most noteworthy examples of French 20th Century choral works, performed in chronological order. The exception is Chausson’s little-known ‘Ballata’ dating from the 1890s; an attractive piece, worth hearing but slightly out of place here. My main sorrow with this disc is that it plays for under an hour in duration. I would have liked another work thrown in. Perhaps some Poulenc would have been appropriate. However let us take what we have.

The Debussy is well known and deservedly so being his only choral composition. It was published in 1908 and although unaccompanied is within the ability range of amateur choirs. The SWR Vocal Ensemble sing all three elegantly. My only quibble is the rather plummy contralto soloist chosen for the second song ‘Quant j’ai ouy le tambourin’. Debussy’s choice of contralto soloist is interesting. A lighter soloist is more often used by British choirs to achieve this sound and to act as a contrast to the altos.

The Ravel, which dates from the early years of the First World War, is done with panache and style although the very tricky Roundelay (movement 3) needs even more articulation of text, to make its comic effect. The inspiration for these pieces is to be found in the High Renaissance madrigals of Jannequin and Passereau.

Then comes the Messiaen, composed in 1948. How original it must at first have appeared as indeed it still does to the first time listener. Oddly enough the booklet, which has all the other texts, does not have these for ‘Cinq rechants’. This is a very disappointing decision as the texts, although almost nonsense, are essential in creating a rounded view and full enjoyment of these extraordinary pieces. It is the Messiaen and Jolivet’s ‘Epithalame’ (Wedding Songs) written in 1953, which mark this choir out as a virtuoso ensemble. These are landmarks of the choral repertoire and were composed for ‘La Chorale madrigal’ a group of twelve soloists who in the 1940s and 1950s, were without peer in Europe. Both works, but especially Jolivet’’s ‘Symphony’, can only be performed by top-flight singers. Each composer takes a unique approach. Messiaen uses a text full of onomatopoeic syllables and his own invented language based on Sanskrit and Quecha. The pieces are built on vibrant ‘Refrains’, interspersed with more restrained sections (the ‘Couplets’). These surrealist songs are for twelve unaccompanied voices using Messiaen’s typical fluid rhythms and rich modal harmony. Most of the passion and excitement of this music is brought out by Huber’s singers but I would have liked more attack in the first movement and a faster more exciting tempo in the third movement.

André Jolivet’s ‘Symphony for twelve voices’ also uses a text of his own devising; in this case long and complex and especially designed for antiphonal work between upper and lower voices. To explain it further the generally good booklet notes by Dorothea Bossert comment that Jolivet wanted to "achieve an orchestral effect by taking the French language as his starting point, a language in which he sees a lack of musical accentuation which the text tries to offset by forming words that imitate sounds of a primarily dynamic effect." If that seems convoluted enough the notes continue: "His attempt to bring out the typical linear quality of the French language as a musical quality makes him turn to sophisticated ligatures and glissandos, and virtuoso sixteenth passages looping up and down." I won’t go on. Is this quote helpful? My advice is, listen to the extract and enjoy a section of this wonderful and clever music for yourself.

The recording and acoustic help to bring out all of the good things in this recital. I can say, without too much hesitation, that this CD is a good place to start a collection if you do not have any of this repertoire. However at only fifty minutes the disc represents a somewhat expensive luxury.

Gary Higginson


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