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Maurice DURUFLÉ (1902-1986)
, Op. 9 (1948) [41:21] Four Motets on Gregorian Themes, op. 10 (1960) [8:05]
Jean-Jacques GRUNENWALD (1911-1982)
Tu es Petrus
(1965) [2:16]
Psalm 129 (De Profundis) (1961) [22:24]
Sarah Connolly (mezzo); Christopher Maltman (baritone); Robert Cohen (cello); Jeremy Filsell (organ)
Vasari Singers/Jeremy Backhouse
rec. Tonbridge School Chapel, Kent, February 2008
Experience Classicsonline

Maurice Duruflé, like Dutilleux, and even Ravel, is one of those French composers whose catalogue of works is slim, but each piece within it is polished like the finest jewel. Most of his music was written for choir or organ, but even including what little orchestral and chamber music he produced, barely three CDs would be needed to contain his complete works.

The Requiem was commissioned by his publisher, Durand, and exists in three forms. The first, with full orchestra, appeared in 1947. The composer completed a version for organ alone the following year. Then, in 1961, he prepared a third, for small orchestra including harp, timpani, organ and three trumpets. Duruflé gave two reasons for creating this third version. The first is predictable, the practical problems involved in assembling a full orchestra, but the second is more interesting. He wrote that “an organ alone might seem insufficient in certain passages … where the expressive timbre of the strings is necessary.” Wonderful though the organ version is, I agree with this.

Whichever version one gets to know, Duruflé’s Requiem is one of the most beautiful works in the choral repertoire. Like much of his music, it is based on Gregorian chant, and what he does with these melodies is little short of miraculous. I can only urge readers who do not already know the piece to set to and put things right immediately. For those happy to get to know it in its organ-accompanied version I have no hesitation in saying that they cannot do much better than invest in this disc. The choral singing is quite superb, and whilst few listeners would be fooled into thinking that it was a French choir, the Vasari Singers certainly avoid any suggestion of the English cathedral tradition – a flavour that which not suit this work at all. Too many English performances present it as an example of Gallic restraint and emotional self-control. There is a marvellous serenity about much of the music, it’s true, but there is passion too, as well as doubt and even fear. One wants to congratulate this team for avoiding the understatement of too many English performances. The final two pages of the Introit provide a good example of this, as well as the superb climax of the following Kyrie. If only Jeremy Backhouse had encouraged his altos to adopt a more exultant tone in their glorious solo at the beginning of Domine Jesu Christe then my satisfaction might almost have been complete, especially if he had retaken the Agnus Dei too, where the singing seems marginally less convinced. On the other hand the Hosannas in the Sanctus are stunning, as are the two dramatic passages. Jeremy Filsell  tackles the ferocious organ part marvellously well and we even have Robert Cohen, balanced a little closely, as cello soloist in the Pie Jesu. Sarah Connolly is fine here, finding, almost to perfection, the fine line between prayerfulness and human anxiety. I say “almost” because I would have preferred less vibrato in louder passages, but the same problem is much more pronounced in Christopher Maltman’s two short solo passages, to the extent that they are all but ruined for this listener.

This is a very fine performance indeed, and one I will certainly come back to when I want to hear the organ version of this magnificent work. As to other choices, there is a very fine performance on BIS by the St. Jacob’s Chamber Choir of Stockholm conducted by Gary Graden (BISCD602) but it is cooler than the present performance and I wouldn’t prefer it overall. However, the disc also features some of the most beautiful solo baritone singing I have ever heard from Peter Mattei, both in the Requiem and in the sublime Mass Cum Jubilo for unison baritones and organ.

The four short Op. 10 motets are also extremely beautiful. The Vasari Singers are as impressive technically here as they are in the Requiem, but I don’t think they tell the whole story. I find the choir too cool, too restrained in these pieces, falling slightly into the trap, in other words, that they so successfully avoided in the main work. This is especially true of the first motet, Ubi caritas. By moving the music on – doing only what is marked in the score – a certain urgency can be achieved. There are one or two harsh sounds here too, especially in Tu es Petrus, difficult enough to bring off in any case. I find these performances too spiritual, even ethereal. French choirs find it easier to avoid this, and to hear what I mean you should listen to the performances on Naxos (8.553196) conducted by Michel Piquemal, less well in tune, to be sure, but more human. The Requiem is also to be found on this disc, in the small orchestra version, with Didier Henry a very good baritone soloist and Béatrice Uria-Monzon an outstanding mezzo.

It was so obviously a good idea not to complete the disc with more Duruflé, and brave to give us music by a composer so little known, that I’m disappointed not to be more enthusiastic about the rest of the programme. Jean-Jacques Grunenwald was, like Duruflé, an professional organist for much of his life, and if his catalogue of concert works is almost as slim, he was a prolific composer of film scores. His setting of what we now call Psalm 130, De Profundis, is an ambitious work in three movements. Much of the organ writing will discourage those temperamentally allergic to the instrument – enormous, thick dissonant chords over long held pedal notes. There is a lot of it too, as the choir is silent for much of the time. The choral writing is relatively unvaried, homophonic with piquant harmonies not always directly suggested by the words. The second section rises to a massive climax which seems pasted in rather than inevitable and hard won. The final section could almost be by another composer, with sugary harmonies for women’s voices rising progressively to the upper registers to suggest perpetual light, “a clear vision of ecstasy” as Adam Binks writes in the informative accompanying note. Grunenwald’s setting of Tu es Petrus is similar in style to the second part of the Psalm, forthright and declamatory. The booklet prints the same brief text as for Duruflé’s motet, but Grunenwald actually continues further with it. The performances are committed but feel less secure than those of the Duruflé works. If Jeremy Backhouse thought it worthwhile to resurrect this music it is presumably because he is convinced by it, but I must confess to finding not a single memorable musical idea throughout.

William Hedley 

see also Review by John Quinn June RECORDING OF THE MONTH



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