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Alfred DESENCLOS (1912-1971)
Messe de Requiem (1963) [30:36]
Salve Regina (1958) [3:42]
O Salutaris* [3:40]
Pater noster (1944) [3:02]
Nos autem (1958) [4:06]
O Salutaris* [2:09]
Ave, Maria* [2:35]
Sanctus* [1:28]
Agnus Dei [2:20]
Les Eléments/Joël Suhubiette.
Frédéric Desenclos (organ)
Recorded at Notre-Dame-du-Taur, Toulouse. Dates not stated. DDD
HORTUS 009 [53:45]

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 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.

John Quinn



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