“Everything I managed to entertain in the way of religious illusion I put into my Requiem, which moreover is dominated from beginning to end by a very human feeling of faith in eternal rest.” (Fauré) (1921)
This disc of French choral music co-produced with BR Klassik came as a breath of fresh air. The Fauré Requiem
is a familiar and much loved repertoire work while the Poulenc Motets
are nowhere near as well known.
The Bavarian Radio Choir was founded in 1946 as the Munich Radio Choir and is now acknowledged as one of the finest vocal ensembles in the world. In May 2011 I attended an all-Mahler concert in the Munich Philharmonie where the Bavarian Radio Choir performed Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen
arranged for chorus and directed by Michael Gläser and the mighty Resurrection Symphony
with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra and Choir under Mariss Jansons. Bavarian Radio Choir supplied I experienced remarkably marvellous singing ranging from thrilling climaxes to the softest pianissimo
Gabriel Fauré was inspired to compose his Requiem
by the recent death of his father. By the time of its introduction it served to commemorate his mother as well; she had also died. The premiere in 1888 was directed by the composer and formed part of a funeral service for a Parisian architect in La Madeleine, Paris. The work was originally cast in five movements for a modest choir and an orchestra of chamber proportions with organ. Designed to be intimate in style, modest in scale and somewhat restrained in tone this approach made a sharp contrast to the large-scale requiems of Berlioz and Verdi. Later Fauré added two further movements and thickened the orchestration and this expanded version was first performed in 1893. There is yet a further version for full orchestral forces which was introduced in 1900 at the Trocadéro Palace, Paris. For many years it was the vogue to perform the Fauré Requiem
with massed choral and orchestral forces. This gave a concert emphasis and distracted from its potential for liturgical performance in a church setting.
Ominous and shadowy low strings with striking brass open the Introit
; it could almost be from the Brahms Requiem
. Here the Bavarian Choir provide remarkable weight in the forte
passages. In the serious Offertory
section rock-steady baritone Konrad Jarnot is in splendid form. His dark-timbre sounds almost menacing in the text Hostias et preces tibi Domine laudis offerimus
(Sacrifices and prayers of praise we offer to you, O Lord
). The choir’s singing in the swaying Sanctus
is highly atmospheric ranging from delicacy to great ardour. I loved the ravishing, brightly lit soprano of Sunhae Im in the renowned Pie Jesu Domine
(Merciful Lord Jesus
). Her vibrato although noticeable is appealing and never obtrusive. I must say that her tendency to roll her Rs was not to my taste. In the Agnus Dei
(Lamb of God
) the choir sing the suppliant text beautifully just shimmering with reverence. Jarnot offers the most gutsy of pleas with his Libera me, Domine
(Free me, Lord
). There is a wonderful devotional intensity from the choir in the final section In Paradisum deducant te Angeli
(May angels lead you into Paradise
) to end a splendidly satisfying performance. Throughout the Munich Chamber Orchestra play with excellence and polish. Credit also to Max Hanft for his sympathetic organ accompaniment. The whole is wonderfully recorded with vivid sound that pleasingly accommodates a slight reverberation giving the an ecclesiastical impression.
There are two stunning alternative accounts of the earlier 1893 ‘chamber orchestra’ version. These are beautifully sung and recorded and are certainly worthy of consideration. The best known of the two is from the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique, Monteverdi Choir and Salisbury Boy Choristers directed by Sir John Eliot Gardiner. This was recorded on period instruments in 1992 at the Priory Church of St. Peter and St. Paul, Leominster and issued on Philips 438 149-2. Far lesser known is the recording from the Cambridge Singers with members of the City of Sinfonia London directed by John Rutter who recorded it in 1984 at the Great Hall of University College School, London (Collegium Records COLCD 109).
Francis Poulenc wrote a substantial body of sacred music. With the exception of the Stabat Mater
(1950) and the Gloria
(1959) much of this is rarely heard outside France. Born into the Roman Catholic church Poulenc faced many personal dilemmas and crises. His faith waned for a number of years. It was however reborn in his mid-thirties and this motivated him to write sacred scores characterised by a darker-hued sonority and a more contemplative nature. From this time comes the set of Quatre Motets pour un temps de Pénitence
for unaccompanied choir composed in 1938/39. After attending the première of Milhaud’s Cantates de la paix and Deux cités
Poulenc remarked, “the exact image of my Motets suddenly came to me ... as vivid and as tragic as a painting by Mantegna
In the opening Timore et tremor
(Fear and terror
) the Bavarian choir convey an impressive devotional fervour. At the conclusion the sound decays to a whisper. I love the splendid outpouring of energy in both the Vinea mea electa
(O vineyard, my chosen one
) and the emotionally lucid Tenebrae factae sunt
(Shadows covered the earth
). Soprano Barbara Fleckenstein’s lament in the vivid Tristis est anima mea
(Sad is my soul
) is quite haunting. The closing section of the score has a rapturous feel and it is so eloquently performed by the assured Bavarian choir. The motets are vividly recorded.
Of the alternative recordings of the Poulenc Quatre Motets
I am constantly impressed by the beautifully blended voices on the 1995 account from the RIAS Kammerchor directed by Marcus Creed on Harmonia Mundi 901588.
These are highly sympathetic performances and have clearly been impeccably rehearsed. I was impressed by the choir’s unity and precision and their ability to deliver these two scores so reverentially. Stunningly performed and recorded this disc of French choral repertoire is a marvellous mix of the familiar and the not so familiar.