In 2006 Edward Higginbottom
marks thirty years as Director of Music
at New College, Oxford, a tenure as
lengthy as it has been distinguished.
It’s appropriate that this disc should
be devoted to French music since we
read in the booklet that that is one
of his specialities. Indeed, he has
been made Commandeur dans l’Ordre des
Arts et des Lettres for his services
to French culture. For this recording
he took the choir to the Benedictine
Abbey of Saint Michel-en-Thiérache
in Picardie. There they were recorded
in a lovely acoustic and had the benefit
of a splendidly reedy French organ for
the Poulenc Litanies.
music came to occupy an important place
in his output. He did not begin composing
in the genre until 1936 when
the accidental death of a close friend
and a subsequent visit to the shrine
of the Black Virgin at Rocamadour inspired
him to compose the Litanies à
la Vierge noire. This work is for
female or children’s voices and organ.
In this performance the male altos of
the choir join the trebles. One of the
delights of this performance, as I’ve
already hinted, is the wonderfully reedy
and very French sound of the organ –
sample the chord at 1:07. The instrument
adds a marvellously piquant flavour.
It’s a demanding score and the choir
sing it with biting intensity until
the tone of the music softens at ‘Agneau
de Dieu’ [6:10]. From here onwards the
music is more gently beseeching and
the change of mood is well managed.
I thought this a most successful realisation
of Poulenc’s score.
The composer very quickly
followed the Litanies with an
even more important score. The Mass
in G major, composed just a year
later is, in my view, a seminal work
in the twentieth-century choral repertoire.
The recordings that have come my way
in recent years have all been by mixed
adult choirs but here I relished the
edge that the treble voices bring to
the texture. This is evident from the
start in the arresting, even astringent,
Kyrie. The Gloria is strongly
projected too. In fact, though the moments
of repose, such as in the Benedictus,
are suitably brought off, this is fundamentally
an urgent and incisive account of the
Mass. In the Agnus Dei Poulenc
uses up to four solo voices, with the
most prominent part given to the soprano
– or, in this case, treble – line. All
the soloists do well but treble Sasha
Ockenden particularly distinguishes
himself, singing Poulenc’s demanding
solo part with splendid assurance and
making a fine sound.
The other Poulenc pieces
are also done well. I did wonder, however,
if the performance of Exultate Deo
could not have been a bit more unbuttoned.
I found a similar thought creeping in
when listening to ‘Hodie Christus
natus est’, the jubilant final Christmas
motet. To me it sounds a bit careful
and too deliberately paced but, on the
other hand, all the vocal lines are
crystal clear, which is welcome, and
there’s a particularly ear-catching
contribution from the tenors. Earlier
in this set of motets I enjoyed the
lightness and fluency that Higginbottom
brings to ‘Quem vidistis pastores’
and the gorgeous, languorous melody
of ‘O magnum mysterium’ is floated
beautifully by the New College trebles.
Later in this same motet the tenor melody
at ’Beata virgo’ is smooth and
sensuous, just as it should be. As a
passing thought, I wonder why these
four motets were not placed as a single
group on the CD, as would have seemed
logical. Instead, Villette’s Attende
Domine is placed between the second
and third motets, which seems a bit
odd. In fact, I’d have thought that
the Villette piece would have been more
suitably placed immediately before the
Mass in G.
It’s good to find three
of Villette’s fine liturgical works
included here. The use of trebles rather
than female sopranos means that these
are very different performances from
those by a mixed adult choir, The Holst
Singers, which I reviewed
recently but I enjoyed the different
slant that an all-male choir brings.
The New College choir gives a powerful,
committed account of Attende Domine,
and that’s wholly appropriate for
this rather troubled piece. The other
two Villette offerings call for more
in the way of smooth elegance and that’s
just what they receive.
The remaining piece
on the disc is Messiaen’s exquisite
O sacrum convivium and this performance
is rather curious in that it’s given
with organ accompaniment. It’s many
years since I sang the piece and so
I can’t remember if there’s an optional
accompaniment specified in the score.
I can only imagine that this is the
case since a musician as fastidious
as Dr. Higginbottom would not include
an inauthentic accompaniment, I’m sure.
However, I can never recall hearing
it done like this and a quick check
of the other performances in my collection
revealed that all of them are unaccompanied.
I have to say that I rather regret the
addition of the organ, not least because
the quiet organ chords generally continue
when the choir breathes and I find that
intrusive. In addition this was the
one performance on the disc that disappointed
me because the choir sings just a bit
too loudly. I missed the hushed intensity
that is there in the very best performances,
especially at the beginning of the piece.
However, that’s only
one disappointment in an otherwise excellent
and most enjoyable recital. The recorded
sound is deeply sympathetic and there
are good notes in English, French and
German. Full texts are also supplied
with English translations.
This is announced as
the first volume in a series. In fact
I see from the choir’s website (www.newcollegechoir.com)
that the series is intended to run to
three discs. The second is due for release
in the summer and will feature music
by James MacMillan and his contemporaries.
That is something to look forward to.
For now this is a disc which I’m very
happy to recommend.