I first encountered
the French chamber choir, Les Eléments
earlier this year when I reviewed favourably
a CD on which they sang the Requiem
of Maurice Duruflé as well as
music by Poulenc and Messiaen www.musicweb-international.com/classrev/2005/May05/Durufle_requiem_hortus018.htm.
Now here is another CD containing a
French twentieth-century requiem, receiving
its first recording, I believe. However,
I suspect that the name of composer
Alfred Desenclos will be new to most
collectors, as it was to me, and even
to many French music lovers.
So, a brief biographical
sketch, culled from the notes accompanying
this CD, is probably in order. Alfred
Desenclos was born in Portel in the
Pas-de-Calais area of France. He was
the seventh of ten children and until
the age of twenty was obliged to work
as an industrial designer to help support
the family. In 1929 he was able to enrol
in the Conservatoire in Roubaix to study
piano and in 1932 progressed to the
Paris Conservatoire. A distinguished
student, he won a number of prizes,
culminating in a Prix de Rome in 1942.
Apparently he later confided that he
had only "begun to write music
after [winning] his Prix de Rome."
While studying in Paris
he took the post of choirmaster at the
church of Notre-Dame-de-Lorette in Paris.
Four of the works that he wrote for
his choir during that time are recorded
here (I have denoted these with an asterisk
in the review heading). For a while
after winning the Prix de Rome he composed
mainly secular music, composing a symphony
and other works, but returned to liturgical
composition in 1958 with Salve Regina
and Nos autem. The Requiem
of 1963 was originally conceived with
full orchestral accompaniment but the
present recording uses an organ reduction
made by Desenclos himself.
I donít know if Desenclos
composed anything of significance after
the Requiem. The notes are silent on
this point. Indeed, as an introduction
to a fairly obscure composer the documentation
leaves something to be desired. The
author of the notes writes at length
about what he terms a "ítraditioní
of French Requiems", though in
fact he only mentions the works in this
genre by Saint-Saëns, Fauré
and Duruflé. For myself Iíd have
welcomed more information about the
life and works of Desenclos. Incidentally,
while on the subject of the documentation,
I assume that the coincidence of names
is too great for organist Frédéric
Desenclos (b. 1961) not to be a relation
of the composer (his son?) but thereís
no comment about this in the notes,
which I think is rather a pity.
Inevitably most interest
will centre on the Requiem since
it is a large-scale work. It is a setting
that contains many beautiful passages
of choral writing and is strong on atmosphere.
The prevailing mood is reflective. The
music is completely tonal, devoted and
fits the texts well. It is very accessible
and has a pronounced Gallic flavour.
However, there is one drawback. For
all its many virtues the music lacks,
for me at least, a strong profile and
this, I fear, is due to the lack of
any truly memorable thematic material.
Thatís not to say by
any means that the work is devoid of
melody but the themes donít lodge in
the mind, I find. Thus, for example,
at the start of the second movement,
the Offertory, íDomine Jesu Christeí,
we briefly encounter a lovely rising
canonical melody. However, within a
few moments of hearing it itís forgotten.
Inevitably, one makes comparisons with
the Requiems of Fauré and of
Duruflé and I think itís precisely
because these works are more thematically
memorable that they make a more lasting
impression. Of course, Iíve known both
of those works for many years whereas
Iíve come only recently to the Desenclos
work but I donít think my judgement
is clouded by the greater familiarity.
Desenclos makes use
of a quartet of soloists but their appearances
are pretty fleeting and, as the notes
suggest, they are used more as a semi-chorus.
For the most part the choir carries
the argument. The writing for voices
strikes me as being pretty good and
the lines that Desenclos gives his singers
sound grateful to sing. The organ accompaniment
is full of interest and is stylishly
played on an 1880 Puget instrument.
The smaller-scale pieces
that comprise the rest of the programme
have much to commend them. The Salve
Regina is a lovely, flowing setting
for chorus and the ending of this piece
has a beautiful chaste quality that
reminded me slightly of Poulenc. Even
better is the unaccompanied Nos autem.
This is a truly lovely little piece.
Itís a rapt setting, which the choir
sings quite beautifully. I also enjoyed
very much the pure, clear voice of soprano
Geneviève Fourtet in the first
of the two settings of O Salutaris
(track 9). This is a dedicated and delightful
piece for solo soprano and organ, whereas
the other setting of the same text is
for four-part choir and organ.
I wish I could say
that this disc reveals a neglected masterpiece.
I donít think Desenclosís Requiem
is quite that. However, itís a most
atmospheric work of no little beauty
and Iím glad to have heard it and the
other works on this disc. The performances
are uniformly excellent. Joël Suhubiette
conducts convinced and convincing performances
and his choir acquit themselves splendidly.
The organ accompaniments by Frédéric
Desenclos are supportive and thoroughly
musical and both singers and organ are
reproduced in good sound. The documentation,
which is in English and French, is good,
albeit with the caveat that I mentioned
earlier and the Latin texts are supplied.
Anyone interested in
twentieth-century French choral music
should investigate this release.