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Jean-Jacques GRUNENWALD (1911-1982)
Tu es Petrus (1965) [2:16]
Psaume CXXIX (De Profundis) (1961) [22:24]
Maurice DURUFLÉ (1902-1986)
Quatre Motets sur des themes grégoriens Op. 10 (1960) [8:05]
Requiem, Op. 9 (1947-8)* [41:21]
Sarah Connolly (mezzo)*; Christopher Maltman (baritone)*; Robert Cohen (cello)*; Jeremy Filsell (organ); Vasari Singers/Jeremy Backhouse
rec. Tonbridge School Chapel, 22-24 February 2008. DDD
Latin texts and English translations included
Experience Classicsonline

The obvious course to take in planning this CD would have been to include some more music by Maurice Duruflé; perhaps his Messe cum Jubilo Op. 11. That would have been perfectly welcome but Jeremy Backhouse has been much more enterprising in his choice of repertoire and instead has included two works by Jean-Jacques Grunenwald, a near contemporary of Duruflé and, like him, a long time organist at a Paris church.

Grunenwald’s name and music were completely new to me and, I fancy, he may be unknown to many other readers. So a little information about him is probably in order and for this I am indebted to Adam Binks, who contributes an excellent booklet note to accompany this disc.

Grunenwald hailed from the Rhône-Apes region of France - he was born near Annecy. In 1932 he came to Paris to study, where his organ teacher was Marcel Dupré. Appointed organist of the American Church in Neuilly-sur-Seine in 1935, in the following year he became also Dupré’s assistant at the church of St. Sulpice in Paris. From 1955 to 1970 he was organist at another Paris church, St. Pierre-de-Montrouge, and in 1973 he succeeded Dupré as organist of St. Sulpice, holding that post until his death. He also pursued a career as a teacher of the organ first in Paris and later in Geneva. As an organist he was particularly renowned for his performances of Bach, whose complete organ works he recorded on LP between 1957 and 1962, playing the organ of Soissons Cathedral. So far, therefore, Grunenwald fits the mould of the French organist-composer-pedagogue. However, one thing marked him out among such composers: over a period of some twenty years after 1943 Grunenwald composed no less than twenty-three film scores. Interestingly, he was also a trained architect. 

To the best of my knowledge I’ve never heard a note of Grunenwald’s music before now. A quick search on the web indicates that his compositions include two piano concertos, some twenty organ works, and a fair number of piano solos and miscellaneous pieces. The works we hear in this programme contrast greatly with each other. Tu es Petrus, which couldn’t be more different from the Duruflé setting that comes later in the programme, is for choir and organ. In fact the original scoring, very much in the French fashion, is for two organs - grand orgue and orgue de choeur - but here Jeremy Filsell plays a conflation of the two parts. A majestic prelude on full organ prefaces a short but impressive celebratory choral anthem. This is a piece that deserves to be better known.

Its companion is a much more substantial offering. De Profundis is a setting of Psalm 130 - Grunenwald employed the Greek ordering of the Psalms, which has ‘Out of the depths’ as Psalm 129. It was written for choir and orchestra and it’s not clear by whose hand is the organ reduction used in this performance. Much of the music is dark in tone, especially the first of the three sections into which the work is divided.

The opening section opens in sepulchral depths. An extended organ prelude begins very quietly and eventually rises to a powerful climax. It’s not until 2:17 that voices - the basses - are heard. After a while the whole choir is heard, singing wordlessly, before the organ takes over the argument in an interlude, much of which is dark, even menacing, in tone. When the ladies voices re-enter their music is subdued and it’s in this vein that the remainder of the movement is played out. The second section is much more tranquil at the start, responding to the fact that by now the nature of the Psalm itself has changed. The words that Grunenwald set in the first section were fearful and penitential but the opening line of section two translates as “But there is forgiveness with thee” So when, after an organ introduction, the ladies voices enter their music is gentle and ethereal. The accompaniment is suitably light in texture also - Jeremy Filsell’s playing hereabouts is wonderfully subtle and atmospheric. The music in the remainder of this section is pleasingly responsive to the words - hopeful, for example, at “speret Israel in Domino” 

Grunenwald concludes De Profundis by tacking on to the psalm words from the introit of the Mass for the Dead - “Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine”. These words are a very apt addition to the Psalm text. This section contains the most obviously appealing music in the whole work. It’s pacific and consoling in tone and really rather beautiful. There’s a warm central climax, after which the piece ends radiantly with the sopranos singing in alt, accompanied very delicately by a high-lying, quiet organ part. To be truthful I doubt if this piece is likely to become a repertoire piece but it’s a powerful, deeply felt work and I’m very glad to have had the opportunity to hear it, especially in such a committed and expert performance as this. I mean no disrespect to the excellent choir when I say that it’s the colourful, imaginative organ playing of Jeremy Filsell that particularly grabbed my attention. This work may have originated as an orchestral score but in his expert hands it sounds completely right on the organ.

We’re on much more familiar territory for the remainder of the programme. The Vasari Singers make a superb job of the Quatre Motets sur des themes grégoriens. My favourite is the first in the set, ‘Ubi caritas’. It’s a gorgeous little gem, perfectly crafted. The performance here is well-nigh ideal, smooth and supple - as the music should sound. The ladies are on their own in ‘Tota pulchra es Maria’ and they sing it with a lovely eager tone. ‘Tu es Petrus’ is as jubilant as it’s brief - a mere fifty-two seconds - and in the concluding’ Tantum ergo’ I love the way in which the plainchant hymn, sung quite slowly, is embellished by Duruflé with warm harmonies. The Vasari Singers clarify the textures most successfully.

Duruflé’s Requiem is a wonderful, luminous work which I prefer in some ways to Fauré’s cherishable setting. I’ve been lucky enough to sing it a good few times in both its original 1947 version in which full orchestra and organ is employed and also in the subsequent version for organ only - there’s a third version, dating from 1961, which is scored for chamber orchestra and organ - and each time I sing or hear it I feel it’s one of the most beautiful and sincere of all settings of the Requiem Mass.

Duruflé wrote of his Requiem: “In a very general way I sought above all to immerse myself in the particular style of the Gregorian melodies, with the result that I forced myself, as far as possible, to reconcile Gregorian rhythms … with the demands of modern metrics.” In practice, what this means is that the time signatures alter very frequently in each movement. In fact, if a performance is to be successful the performers need to make the listener completely unaware of the bar lines; the music must proceed in pretty much a seamless flow, as would be the case if one were listening to a choir of monks expertly singing plainchant.

That challenge is met completely and convincingly in this splendid performance. Right from the start, in a lovely, flowing account of ‘Requiem aeternam’, one feels that the bar lines have been banished. The singing is smooth and effortless and very beautiful. The overall effect is serene. The same is true of the ‘Kyrie’, which follows without a break. When we reach ‘Christe eleison’ the ladies singing is chaste and seamless. The climactic ‘Kyrie’ that follows is very powerful, though the singers achieve this without sacrificing line or beauty of tone. At cue 17 in the score (track 10, around 3:09) the organ pedal line is splendidly potent.

In the third movement I admired very much the ethereal sound of the female voices at “sed signifer Michael” (track 11, 3:55). This movement is one of two places where Duruflé employs a baritone soloist. The part is not exactly substantial - a mere nineteen bars of music in this movement and a further eleven bars in Movement VIII, ‘Libera me’. In fact the composer went so far as to put a note in the score stating that “il est preferable” that the baritone solo should be sung by the choral baritones and second tenors. This injunction is rarely observed - I’ve only come across one recording that does and in his own 1959 recording of the orchestral version Duruflé himself uses a soloist (see review). Here the soloist is Christopher Maltman, luxury casting indeed. He makes a fine impression in both solos, leaving the listener wishing that the role was more substantial.

The fifth movement, ‘Pie Jesu’, is, like the comparable movement in Fauré’s Requiem, a solo. Here Signum pull out all the stops for not only are we treated to the exquisite voice of Sarah Connolly but the crucial cello obbligato features none other than Robert Cohen. Miss Connolly is in radiant form. She sings with a rich brown, warm tone, caressing each phrase, responding eloquently to the text and spinning a glorious line throughout. Cohen’s lovely cello tone offers the perfect complement to her voice. Quite simply, this is the finest performance I’ve heard, bar none, of this exquisite movement. 

The eighth movement, ‘Libera me’ brings virtually the sole passage of overt drama in the entire work in the shape of a few lines of the ‘Dies Irae’. In this brief episode the choir gets a rare chance to show that they can sing with real punch and they grasp the opportunity with some forceful singing. But for the most part Duruflé’s Requiem is subtle and restrained in tone. The ‘Lux aeterna’ is a prime example and is, perhaps, the movement where, more than any other, the bar line is an irrelevance. Jeremy Backhouse draws a performance of seamless fluidity from his choir, making the music seem deceptively simple. Here, as throughout the performance, the balance between singers and organ is all that could be desired. So it is also in the final movement, the sublime setting of ‘In Paradisum’. Here time seems to stand still as we hear a spiritual and wonderfully refined performance. The women’s voices are radiant and gentle, truly an angelic chorus. When the organ takes over the plainchant melody against a background of choral harmonies at cue 101 (track 17, 1:44) the effect is genuinely moving. This lovely performance rounds off a superb reading of this masterpiece of French choral music.  

Throughout the Requiem - and, indeed, over the programme as a whole - the singing of the Vasari Singers is nothing short of superb. The choir is disciplined, expressive, expertly controlled and the internal balance is faultless to my ears. They’ve given us a succession of top quality discs but this must rank as one of the finest of them all. Their partnership with the magnificent Jeremy Filsell goes from strength to strength - how many choirs are lucky enough to have as their frequent accompanist someone who is a virtuoso in his own right? His contribution to this CD is of world class standard. The superb performances of choir and organist are captured in sound of demonstration quality.

The catalogue boasts several fine recordings of the Duruflé Requiem but I think this one is now first choice, its attraction enhanced by the imaginative couplings.

John Quinn  


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