France - A Musical Journey: Cathedrals and Megaliths, Calvaries and Tapestries from Brittany to the Loire
With music by Gabriel FAURÉ (1845-1924)
Requiem. (Chs 1-7). Lisa Beckley, (soprano); Nicholas Gedge, (bass-baritone); with Colm Carey (organ). Schola Cantorum of Oxford and Oxford Camerata/Jeremy Summerly fom Naxos 8.550765
Pavane, Op. 50 (Ch. 8); Sicilienne, Op. 78 (Ch. 9); Berceuse, Op. 16 (Ch. 10) Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra/Keith Clark, from Naxos 8.550088
No recording dates or venues, given
Dts Digital Surround Sound. Dolby Digital. Aspect ratio 4:3
NAXOS DVD 2.110249 [77.56] 

In my review of what I might now call part one of this journey, the music of Chopin, born in 1810, was chosen as an appropriate background to the wonderful pictures. Although Chopin was the son of a French father and a Polish mother he spent his early life in Poland before leaving in 1830 and setting up home in Paris where he died in 1849. I found the choice of his second piano concerto somewhat strange and not particularly appropriate for the pictures. Strangely, there was no coverage at all of the Limousin area, and particularly the scenic village of Gargilesse-Dampiere where the composer conducted his affair with the novelist Georges Sands and which also drew many painters including Claude Monet and Théodore Rousseau. The music really seemed purely background and bore little thematic or emotional relationship with what was being shown. In this second volume the music of the very French composer Gabriel Fauré is chosen and a definite effort seems to have been made to match the music to the visual locations.

Fauré was a pupil of Saint-Saens at the Ecole Niedermeyer in Paris before becoming assistant organist at St Sulpice, later moving to the Madeleine. The latter is a dark forbidding building on the route from the Seine past the magnificent façade of the Palais Garnier to the Boulevard Haussemann in that district renovated with so much wonderful architecture under the Second Empire. At the Madeleine Fauré became deputy to Saint-Saëns and subsequently Choirmaster. There he wrote a large number of songs. In 1892 he became inspector of French provincial conservatories and four years later principal organist at the Madeleine. In the same year he at last found employment as a teacher of composition at the Conservatoire after the death of the old director Ambroise Thomas, who had found Fauré too much of a modernist.

Fauré became director of the Conservatoire in 1905, a position he held until 1920. His pupils there included Ravel, Enescu and Nadia Boulanger. His musical language bridged a gap between the romanticism of the nineteenth century and the more modern, but tonal music of the twentieth century and is characterised by his gift for melody and a particularly personal manner, as the accompanying leaflet puts it. The initial version of his Requiem was first performed at the Madeleine in 1888, its five movements later expanded and with a final version published in 1901.

The sub-title of this photographic collection, Cathedrals and Megaliths, Calvaries and Tapestries from Brittany to the Loire, is, to say the least, somewhat understated in respect of the geography and content. In reality its coverage extends to the Comté in the Jura in the far east of France. Whilst the content initially focuses on churches and holy places it also takes in the remoteness of the Grande Briere in the South of Brittany and the rocky archipelago of the Isles de Chaussey an hour’s sail off the coast of Normandy. There are pastoral scenes, a yacht journey and lovely evenings and sunsets as well as a tour of Honfleur in Normandy.

Given the title there are few better places to start than the mighty Cathedral atop the city of Chartres, sitting on the river Eure. (Chapter 1). The imposing west front of this thirteenth century church is matched by the awesome carvings and stained glasswork seen from the inside. In the seventeenth century a canal some 36 miles long was built from La Grande Briere, that strange marshland at the south of Brittany so as to link the Loire with the Seine. There are fine evening views of the 1890 aqueduct constructed to take the canal over the river. The Introit and Kyrie form an atmospheric accompaniment. 

Chapter 2 moves into Brittany proper, a region of many appropriate monuments, particularly in the west of Finistere. These include the grand church at Pleyben with its calvaire and the more famous one at Locranon with views of its church and cemetery. Further south are Les alignements, the megaliths of Carnac, now a World Heritage Site. These date from the fifth millennium BC and extend for a distance of six kilometres. Thirty years ago I could wander among then, nowadays they are fenced off. A lingering panoramic view could have shown their extent, close-ups do not catch the flavour of the place. One can still wonder among Les géants at Kerzerho, just north of Carnac where the large upright stones live up to their name and are a wonder to behold.

In his Requiem Fauré avoids the terrors of the Day of Judgement familiar from the traditional Dies irae. The general mood is one of tranquillity and hope. The Offertory, its text slightly adapted, was one of the two movements added to the original work, which was developed with changed instrumentation and a baritone soloist. The Offertoire catches the mood here well. 

Chapter 3 moves on to Burgundy and some pictures of the mighty Basilica of Ste-Marie-Madeleine at Vezelay that were included in the previous DVD. Its hilltop location was once the site of an important Benedictine abbey. The church was restored in the nineteenth century and remains an example of Romanesque architecture in what was once an important place of pilgrimage. The Sanctus catches the mood well, the beauty enhanced by the solo violin against the texture of lower strings.

Chapter 4 is now in the far east of France to the Franche-Comté in the Jura. The church of Notre Dame du Haut at Ronchamp was built after the Second World War, during which the original had been destroyed. Designed by Le Corbusier it is notable by its distinct break with tradition and its interior lit by the shafts of light that penetrate through apertures in the concrete walls. The unfamiliarity of the architecture is contrasted by the Pie Jesu with its soprano or treble solo being among the most familiar and best loved movements.

Chapter 5 has us back in the Pays de la Loire and the Musée Jean Lurcat at Angers and where Le Salle des malades of the Hôpital St-Jean, dating from the twelfth century, now houses the large Aubusson tapestries completed in 1966. With their vivid colours these are most impressive as are the caves at Deneze-sous-Doue near Angers which contain a hundred or more carved figures dating from the sixteenth century.

The setting of the Agnus Dei includes a reference to the opening Requiem aeternam, and continues the prevailing mood of devotional tranquillity.

Chapter 6 takes the viewer back to the Comté and Les Salines, the historic salt works at Salins-les-Bains. Regrettably the focus is on the pumping machinery rather than on any views of the setting of curved architecture. Somewhat strangely the representation is cut in with glimpses of the remarkable polyptych of The Last Judgement by Roger van der Weyden, painted for the Hotel-Dieu in Beaune and depicting the Archangel Michael weighing the souls of the dead and various religious and contemporary figures. This was included in the previous issue, which also showed the hospital interior and the patterned roofs of that unique town. Also included are views of the thirteenth-century church of Notre Dame in Dijon the West front facade of which is decorated with grotesque animal and human figures. The music chosen is the Libera me, which includes the baritone solo who could have been steadier.

Chapter 7 is back in Normandy at the Hambye and Jumieges abbeys. The latter, now in ruins, was founded in the seventh century. The surviving buildings date from the eleventh century and owe much to Abbot Robert II, who became Archbishop of Canterbury in 1051. The Benedictine abbey of Hambye, near Coutances, was founded in the twelfth century, and is an early example of Norman Gothic. The flying buttresses and louring skies also have all too many English connections! The concluding In paradisum is an appropriate piece in a continuing mood of tranquillity.

Chapter 8 is still focused on Normandy and is accompanied by Fauré’s elegiac Pavane. It focuses on the quayside of Honfleur at night and characteristic streets bordered by timbered houses in the day. In my experience, during the summer, quayside boats are atop with poseur tourists eating their large plateau de fruits de mer and quaffing Muscadet or Champagne. There are views of a sunset at Etretat but no views of the rock formations on the shore. The church of St Catherine, built by shipwrights in the fifteenth century, is said to resemble an upturned ship.

Chapter 9 plays out to one of Fauré’s less well known pieces, Sicilienne, Op. 78 that has enjoyed a wide variety of arrangements. Written for cello and piano it is dedicated to the English cellist W.H. Squire and orchestrated as incidental music. The camera takes in the richness of the countryside with its farms, orchards and glimpses of half-timbered thatched houses. The verdant pasture explains why Normandy is able to sustain cattle and is the home of cream-based cuisine, its colour and climate reminiscent of England, having a fair ration of rain. One has to travel south of the Loire to see the grass somewhat more sparse and less green.

Chapter 10 at first seems a rather strange choice in an issue that stresses religious connotations. But many of the contents also have a peacefulness of setting; none more so than this with a yacht visiting Bes de Chausey. The archipelago of Chausey, with its multitude of rocky islets, is some miles off the Normandy resort of Granville with an actual voyage taking some fifty minutes, and also demanding skill in navigation. The sail out there is accompanied by Fauré’s Berceuse, Op. 16. 

The musical performances are more than satisfactory and add an ideal extra dimension to the images. I imagine there may well be further DVD instalments in this journey. France has four times the land mass of Britain so there is plenty of scope. If so, and the music is appropriate an accompaniment as here then I shall look forward to their issue with eager anticipation.

Robert J Farr