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Pierre VILLETTE (1926-1998)
O sacrum convivium, Op. 27 (1959) [3:43]
Hymne à la Vierge, Op. 24 [3:56]
Attende, Domine, Op. 45 (1983) [5:37]
Notre Père d’Aix, Op. 75 [2:17]
Inviolata, Op. 66 (1991) [5:15]
Tu es Petrus, Op. 29* (1959) [3:07]
O quam suavis est, Op. 76 [3:05]
Salutation angélique, Op. 20* (1954) [2:30]
Strophes polyphoniques pour le Veni Creator, Op. 28 [5:49]
Panis angelicus, Op. 80 [2:58]
O salutaris hostia, Op. 21 (1954) [2:55]
Ave verum, Op. 3 (1944) [3:16]
Salve regina, Op. 5** (1944) [3:06]
O quam amabilis es, Op. 71 [3:53]
Jesu, dulcis memoria, Op. 78 [3:28]
Adoro te, Op. 31 (1960) [3:10]
O magnum mysterium, Op. 53 (1983) [4:18]
Holst Singers/Stephen Layton
*James Vivian (organ); **Katy Cooper (soprano)
rec. The Temple Church, London, 11-16 May 2005. DDD
HYPERION CDA67539 [62:42]


A couple of points struck me particularly on reading the liner notes accompanying this CD. I was rather surprised to find that Pierre Villette was a contemporary of Pierre Boulez at the Paris Conservatoire – a real case of musical chalk and cheese! – but not at all surprised to learn that an early influence was the composer, Maurice Duruflé. The other point, and a sobering one, was the assertion by Villette’s widow that his music is relatively little known in his native country because "I think religious music has more hold abroad than here in France. Cathedral choirs are thin on the ground these days ..." That’s a sad indictment of a country with wonderful cultural, religious and philosophical traditions and one where so many of the world’s finest churches and cathedrals are to be found. Happily, Villette’s church music at least has been taken up by choirs in other countries, including in the UK where the choir of Worcester Cathedral under their then director, Donald Hunt, were early pioneers.

I’m ashamed to say that, so far as I can recall, all but five of the pieces on this disc were new to me. However, I’ve known and loved for many years the ravishing little Hymne à la Vierge in particular so I was excited by the prospect of becoming acquainted with more of Villette’s output. I’m glad to say that my expectations were more than met, both in terms of the quality of the music and in terms of the excellence of the performances they receive here.

A few words about the composer may be appropriate and I’m indebted here to Fiona Clampin’s exemplary liner note. Villette was born into a musical family though his father, who himself composed and also played several instruments, was not a professional musician but instead ran a joinery business. As a boy Villette sang in the choir of Rouen Cathedral, where Duruflé had been a chorister a couple of decades earlier. Duruflé helped to prepare him for the entrance examination for the Paris Conservatoire, which he passed at the age of fifteen. However, Villette’s studies were interrupted first by the War and then, in 1948, by the death of his father. His father’s demise meant that Villette had to return home to run the family business for a while. Around this time he also endured a period of severe ill health. Recovering from these twin setbacks to his musical development, Villette became head of the conservatoire at Besançon in 1957. In 1967 he moved to a similar post at the Conservatoire d’Aix-en-Provence, where he remained until his retirement twenty years later. Retirement gave him more time for composition and several of the pieces included here were written in those last years.

Although he had his own quietly distinctive voice, Villette’s music may well remind listeners of the choral music of Poulenc in its long vocal lines, the piquant harmonies, the discriminating use of sweetness and sensitive employment of dissonance. There’s also a clear influence of plainsong and so, inevitably, Duruflé’s music often comes to mind. One other, perhaps surprising, occasional influence is Messiaen. I listened to the disc before reading the notes and the very first track, O sacrum convivium, reminded me strongly of Messiaen’s setting of the selfsame text, his only piece of liturgical music. Lo and behold, the notes reveal that Villette admired Messiaen so I’m sure the resemblance to Messiaen’s wondrous 1937 setting is no accident.

Most of the music is predominantly gentle in tone, though it often has an inner strength. In fact, there’s only one really extrovert item in the whole programme. That’s Tu es Petrus, written for the enthronement of the Archbishop of Besançon in 1959. This is, by definition, a more public piece in which the choir is accompanied by a resplendent organ. For this track the choir is placed in a different perspective within the Temple Church and at more of a distance from the microphones, presumably so that the engineers could integrate the organ, which they have done most successfully. This piece was a splendid salutation to the new archbishop and if the prelate in question was a musical man then I’m sure he was delighted.

The remainder of the programme is much more restrained in tone and so I think it was a good idea to mix up earlier works – mainly from the 1950s – with pieces that Villette composed after retiring from academia. Hymne à la Vierge is perhaps the piece by which Villette’s name is best known. It’s a ravishing miniature, composed in the mid-1950s and it receives a devoted performance here. It’s a very supple reading and Stephen Layton ensures that the music flows easily and naturally. He’s equally successful in the much later Notre Père d’Aix, a disarmingly simple setting of the Lord’s Prayer in French. This piece was new to me and I was captivated by it.

By contrast, Inviolata, though quite short, is much more complex. Indeed, the choir is at times divided into as many as twenty separate parts. Layton and his singers make it all sound so natural and fluent, which is a great tribute to their collective musicianship. The piece achieves an ecstatic climax, beautifully handled here, before relapsing into a rapt, hushed ending on the word "Maria". Inviolata was another piece that I hadn’t heard before. However, I did know Attende, Domine, which Villette dedicated to Donald Hunt and the choir of Worcester Cathedral, presumably in recognition of the efforts they had made to champion his music. This is a very fine piece. It’s a dark, indeed troubled, penitential work with an appropriate touch of austerity about it. To me it recalls Poulenc’s darker choral music, especially the Quatre motets pour un temps de pénitence, and the ending is quite marvellous.

Chronologically, the last work included here is Panis angelicus. This setting displays an admirable economy of means. It’s a lovely piece and the concluding, subdued "Amen" calls for – and receives – superbly controlled singing. The final chord is a subtle surprise. Actually, Villette is rather good at "Amens". The one that ends O salutaris hostia is another such gem.

The last two pieces on the disc are rather special. The penultimate track is a setting of a text by St. Thomas Aquinas, Adoro te. It’s a devoted, quietly fervent setting and the Holst Singers perform it marvellously. Finally we hear O magnum mysterium. I wonder why it should be that these words so often inspire particularly eloquent and beautiful music? I think of - in no particular order - Victoria, Poulenc and Morten Lauridsen, to name but three. Villette’s setting is worthy to be mentioned in the same breath as these. He too catches the sense of wonder occasioned by the crib scene at Bethlehem and the mystery of Christ’s incarnation.

This is, quite simply, a marvellous disc. The singing of the Holst Singers is consistently superb, with marvellous internal balancing of the voices, and Stephen Layton directs them most sympathetically, further enhancing his reputation as one of the very finest British choral conductors. As an aside, when he becomes Director of Music at Trinity College, Cambridge this autumn I hope this important appointment will not curtail his work and enterprising recordings with either the Holst Singers or with his other choir, Polyphony.

The recorded sound on this disc is all that one could wish. The splendid singing is most truthfully reported and the resonance of the building has been used very understandingly to give a fine and natural ambience. Finally, the documentation is up to Hyperion’s usual very high standard. Fiona Clampin’s readable and informative notes are a model of their kind and the texts of all the pieces are provided, together with English translations – the liner note is also translated into French and German.

Villette’s subtle and beautiful music deserves a wide audience and this superbly performed recital is an ideal way to get to know it. This is an outstanding disc.

John Quinn

 

 



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