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Gabriel FAURÉ (1845-1924)
Requiem op.48 (1900 version) (a) [32:54]
Messe basse (b) [08:40]
Maurice DURUFLÉ (1902-1986)
Tu es Petrus op.10/3 (c) [01:03]
Tantum ergo op.10/4 (d) [02:37]
Francis POULENC (1899-1963)
Mass in G (e) [20:03]
Arleen Augér (soprano) (a); Benjamin Luxon (baritone) (a); Paul Smy (treble) (b); Mark Harris (treble) (e); Choir of King’s College, Cambridge (a, b, c, d); Winchester Cathedral Choir (e); John Butt (organ) (a, b)/Sir Philip Ledger (a, b, c, d); Martin Neary (e)
rec.15-17 March 1982 (a, b); 17 December 1980 (c, d); 23-24 March 1987 (e); in King’s College, Cambridge (a, b, c, d); Winchester Cathedral (e)
EMI CLASSICS FOR PLEASURE 0946 3 75906 2 1 [65:38]

An efficient enough performance of the Fauré Requiem, if you think that will do. The trouble is, comparison with the earlier King’s version under David Willcocks, issued in 1968, can hardly be sidestepped, for it is one of the best-loved choral recordings ever made.

A certain amount of sympathy was felt for Philip Ledger when he took over the choir in 1974 since Willcocks was perceived as an impossible act to follow. But one’s judgement cannot be clouded by sympathy and it is plain that King’s College Choir in 1982, though still excellent, was not what it was. The voices have less body, suggesting less support in their voice production; as a consequence resort is made to some percussive consonants. This inevitably happens when the voices themselves cannot carry the expressive weight those concerned might wish.

If Ledger’s interpretation conveyed any particular conviction or authority, and if Willcocks’s were merely a demonstration of fine technical control, this slight falling-off in choral quality might have been amply compensated. As it is, Ledger chooses sensible tempi, obeys Fauré’s dynamic markings and thereafter leaves the music to tell its own tale. Since it is a masterpiece, it succeeds in doing this. But why be content with less than the best? I hadn’t heard the Willcocks for a good while and I must say it had me out in goose-pimples from the beginning. The crescendos don’t just get louder, they grow in intensity, and Willcocks, without imposing himself on Fauré, registers subtle changes of colouring throughout, thus achieving great fluidity and freedom of expression against the backdrop of a firm structural control. It would be possible to question whether the typical Anglican choral sound is entirely right for Fauré – I’ll come to this in a moment – but this is a masterly interpretation, totally thought through from its own point of view.

A little more surprisingly the 1982 recorded sound, though bearing the distinguished names of John Willan and Neville Boyling, has considerably less presence. The lack of impact at the opening astonished me and I had to listen with my volume turned considerably higher than usual. Even so, parts of the work seemed to waft into the far distance and the backward recording of the organ is a real liability. Fauré has the organ playing virtually throughout the Requiem, mostly doubling the orchestra but occasionally with a few bars on its own. I suppose it could be argued that Fauré was providing support for the much smaller orchestra he had at his own few performances and maybe allowing for the option of a performance with organ only, with the result that the organ can be allowed to recede into the background when a full orchestra is present. But I feel he wished orchestra and organ to mingle on equal footing, and when he asked for “anches et fonds” (reeds and diapasons) he expected it to roar out thrillingly. The problem with a backward organ is that when it does have something all to itself, we don’t hear it properly. At the beginning of the “Libera me”, for example, the soloist is accompanied by pizzicato strings playing bare octaves. The harmonies are given to the organ, but you have to strain you ears to hear them, while with Willcocks they register properly. It may be too much to expect a Cambridge organ to provide a forte sound comparable to the fruitiest French reeds, but at least in the Willcocks recording we can hear it is there.

Nor do the soloists redress the balance. Arleen Augér sings as well as one would expect; given the uninspired context it would be idle to expect any special radiance. By 1982 Benjamin Luxon’s voice had developed a wavery beat which is tiresome. Willcocks has a boy soloist, Robert Chilcot, for the Pie Jesu and coaxes him to give a performance of quite remarkable intensity at a very slow tempo. John Carol Case had an inherently less rich voice than Luxon but in 1968 it was still firmly placed and free of any waver, so I am bound to prefer him. He is recorded a little too far forward – the one slight criticism that can be made of the entire production.

But what is the “authentic” sound for this work? In 1976 Classics for Pleasure reissued a performance under André Cluytens with a large, vibrato-laden French mixed choir, starry soloists – Victoria de los Angeles and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau – and a generally treacly effect. A distinguished critic described it as “perhaps the most authentic version now available”. There is indeed a certain public perception that French music has to sound like this. However, at the first two performances of the work choirboys sang the soprano part in the choruses and a boy soloist sang the Pie Jesu. These were in 1888, when it was hastily finished in memory of Fauré’s mother with as yet only five movements, and in 1892, when it was complete but with a slimmer orchestration than that eventually published in 1900. From this point of view, then, Willcocks is entirely right. We may wonder, though, if Fauré’s own choir at the Madeleine, where the 1888 performance was given, did not cultivate to a greater degree that chaste voluptuousness which is so characteristic of his art, whether setting religious texts or erotic poems by Verlaine. Since these recordings were made, too, there has been a tendency to go back to the 1892 orchestration, on the grounds that the more conventional version published in 1900 may have been wished upon the composer by the publisher. At which point a third King’s recording, under Ledger’s successor Nicholas Cleobury, enters the ring. Be that as it may, the Willcocks Fauré Requiem is one of the great choral recordings and provides an experience not easily surpassed.

However, the Requiem occupies a little under half the disc, so if you have a satisfactory version of it but none of the other pieces, you may feel the modest Classics for Pleasure price is well worth paying to acquire them. I’m afraid the tiny Fauré “Messe basse” did nothing for me and I suspect the recording makes it sound more pallid than it need. In this case Fauré was writing for female choir, soloists and organ, so Ledger’s boys cannot claim authenticity as they can in the Requiem. Indeed, this is a case where a dose of “chaste voluptuousness” is surely required to get the music off the ground.

If you’ve kept the volume high during the Fauré, remember to jump up and put it back to normal for Duruflé. In a fuller sounding recording the choir itself makes a much better impression. While readers of MusicWeb International are struggling to name and explain the most prolific composer of all time, maybe Duruflé will provide the answer for a future competition regarding the least prolific. Yet, though he agonized for so long over every work, the results are invariably spontaneous-sounding and natural. These tiny motets make their mark with unobtrusive mastery.

Over to Winchester for Poulenc and a very fine recording by Andrew Keener and Trygg Tryggvason. If you associate Poulenc with generally light and frothy music this will be a revelation. Spellbinding in its exploration of choral textures, all superbly realized here, it seemingly evokes ancient rituals to create a wholly modern edifice. Wow!

By the way, the Willcocks Fauré Requiem seems to be available with its original coupling, stingy by modern standards, of the same composer’s Pavane for orchestra alone. Strange; years ago I bought it in Italy as part of an EMI budget series called “Red Line” and evidently intended for strictly Southern European consumption – the skimpy notes were in just French, Italian and Spanish. The two Fauré works were coupled with Palestrina’s Missa Papae Marcelli, an odd mixture but a generously filled disc and more evidence of the high standards achieved at King’s under Willcocks. Might EMI not issue this coupling as a GROC, for great recordings the two major works certainly are?

Christopher Howell 

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