Duruflé’s Requiem is often compared to that of Fauré, the two apparently sharing a cool restraint that can seem particularly French. There are other twentieth-century French settings from a similar mould, by Alfred Desenclos, for instance, or by Joseph-Guy Ropartz, and the trend has been followed on our side of the Channel too, John Rutter being perhaps the leader in the field.
Almost all the music on this disc is based on Gregorian chant. Duruflé was an organist, and the accompaniments to the two large-scale works are magnificently conceived for the instrument, though fiendishly difficult. Both works can also be heard in orchestral versions, the Requiem in a version for full or reduced orchestra.
Having lived with this wonderful music for many years I am now convinced that the restraint mentioned above is misleading. I sense in the Requiem a kind of passionate faith, with great emphasis on the passion. Faith leaves room for doubt, too; indeed, the work seems to confirm that in the absence of doubt the world is bland and uninteresting, all striving pointless. I don’t hear much doubt in this performance from St. John’s. When the unison choir takes up the strain of “Libera me, Domine”, though exquisitely sung, there seems not the slightest possibility that the prayer might not be answered. The two more turbulent should be more abandoned than they are here. The boys are marvellous, of course, making a stunning noise on their top B flats in the Hosannas, but they are too pure elsewhere, lacking adult wisdom and experience. The final “Chorus angelorum” begins well enough, pianissimo
, but Christopher Robinson does not follow the espressivo
marking, nor does he observe the crescendo
to mezzo forte
, so that much of the impact of this extraordinary passage is lost. Then, crucially, he doesn’t really respect the composer’s indication at the very end. The pause is marked “très long”, and we need to hear this added-note chord, surely an attempt to convey the notion of eternity, for longer than this.
In an all-male performance a mezzo-soprano for the “Pie Jesu” seems strange, and all the more so when the optional solo cello is also present, the only music for the instrument in the whole work. Kathryn Turpin sings beautifully, but the reading suffers from slightly shortened note values, and the tempo prevents the singer from conveying the calm essence of the piece.
Duruflé’s 1966 setting of the mass, “Cum Jubilo” is like no other. It is written for unison baritones, plus a baritone soloist. This poses difficulties for choral conductors, as only baritones will really do. True basses suffer terribly in a few passages, which tenors find easily within their compass, so that the necessary vocal colour is lost. The work is of astonishing, bewitching beauty. The “Gloria” is jubilant and rises to a hugely exciting climax, whereas the “Sanctus”, the organ pedals moving bitonally against the choir, is rather austere. The “Benedictus”, for soloist alone, is ravishing, and the “Agnus Dei”, though closing on a simple chord of D major, does so after sinking into a profound calm disturbed only by a few foreign, questioning triads from the organ. St. John’s have the measure of this rather quirky masterpiece. I don’t know how many singers there are, but they rise to the occasion in the more powerful passages, whilst managing breathtaking pianissimos elsewhere. Tuning and breath control are impeccable, and the singing is remarkable also for its homogeneity of tone. I find William Clements’ singing of the “Benedictus” rather disappointing. The beauty of his tone is not in doubt, but, like Kathryn Turpin in the Requiem, he seems in too much of a hurry, so that the essential stillness is only partly achieved. Earlier, his singing of “Domine Fili” is very beautiful indeed, though he finds it necessary to take the lower option when the composer gives a choice. This is quite understandable – the phrase contains several high G sharps – but a pity, as the missing line is profoundly dramatic when sung by a real baritone. But this is a very fine performance and I am sure that newcomers to this remarkable work will be convinced by it. Iain Farrington’s organ accompaniment is just right, as it also is in the Requiem.
The score of each of the Four Motets on Gregorian Themes
is headed by the first phrase of the theme in question. Christopher Robinson has this phrase intoned by one of the trebles before the motet begins. I’ve never heard the motets given like this, and I think it is a mistake. In the first motet, the gorgeous “Ubi caritas”, the first phrase of the chant is already repeated, so that in this performance you hear it three times. The enormous purity evident in these performances is counterbalanced by a rather over-reverent approach, leaving a slightly bloodless impression which I believe is foreign to the music.
Very fine, idiomatically French, performances of the orchestral versions of the two major works are available on two Naxos discs conducted by Michel Piquemal. A near-immediate rival to this disc comes from Bis, with the St. Jacob’s Chamber Choir under Gary Graden, with organist Mattias Wager. There is more human emotion from this mixed, adult choir. The singing of the soloist, Peter Mattei, is astonishingly powerful and vivid, some of the most striking baritone singing I have ever heard. The programme is not quite complete, however, as there rests one more tiny work, Duruflé’s beautiful setting of The Lord’s Prayer. St. John’s sing it beautifully, with nothing more than a single missing liaison in the first sentence of the French text, and with the children’s otherwise near-perfect schoolboy French pronunciation very touching and endearing.