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Faure songs
Charlotte de Rothschild (soprano);

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Twentieth-Century Masters – Volume 1
Francis POULENC (1899-1963)

Salve Regina (1941) [5:00]
Quatre petites prières de Saint François d’Assise (1949) [7:29]
Exultate Deo (1941) [2:58]
Quatre motets pour le temps de Noël (1951-2) [11:32]
Messe en sol majeur (1937) [17:17]
Litanies à la Vierge noire* (1936) [8:09]
Olivier MESSIAEN (1908-1992)
O sacrum convivium (1937)** [4:46]
Pierre VILLETTE (1926-1998)

Attende Domine, Op. 45 (1983) [5:37]
Panis Angelicus, Op. 80 (1995) [3:42]
Hymne à la Vierge, Op. 24 (1954) [4:01]
Choir of New College Oxford/ Edward Higginbottom
*Nicholas Wearne (organ); **David Newsholme (organ)
rec. 21-25 August 2005, L’Abbaye de Saint Michel-en-Thiérache, France. DDD
AVIE AV 2084 [70:30]

 

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.

Poulenc’s liturgical 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.

John Quinn

 



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