Maurice DURUFLÉ (1902-1986)
Requiem, Op. 9 (version for soloists, choir, cello and organ) (1947)* [41:49]
Robin MILFORD (1903-1959)
Mass for Five Voices, Op. 84 (Mass for Christmas Morning) (1945-7) [18:20]
*Christine Rice (mezzo); *Mark Stone (baritone)
*Guy Johnston (cello); Tristan Mitchard (organ)
The Choir of Somerville College, Oxford/David Crown
rec. *13-15 July, 2011, Abbey Church, Douai Abbey, Berkshire, UK; 11-12 July 2011, Somerville College Chapel, Oxford. DDD
Latin texts and English translations included
STONE RECORDS 5060192780208 [59:12]
Somerville College was founded in 1879. Initially it admitted only female students but it has been co-educational since 1994. Its chapel is a relatively recent foundation, dating from 1935. Unlike some Oxbridge colleges the chapel choir does not sing daily services; usually it sings only for Sunday evening service. In addition it gives concerts and sometimes sings for services in other churches during term time. On these recordings the choir numbers 6 sopranos, five (female) altos, four tenors and seven basses.
I first encountered Duruflé’s serene Requiem over forty years ago when I took part in a performance by my school choir and orchestra. In those days it was still a relative rarity, at least in the UK, but nowadays its stature is appreciated and performances and recordings are much more frequent occurrences. I’m pleased that David Crown has selected the version with organ accompaniment. That was probably inevitable given the size of his choir but this is the version which I think best achieves the intimacy that the music demands.
The performance is a good one though occasionally the tenors are inclined to over-sing in louder passages, such as in the Kyrie. On the other hand the sopranos sing with purity and clarity of tone at the wonderful passage ‘Sed signifier sanctus Michael’ in the Domine Jesu Christe movement and they also do well in the cruelly exposed opening of In Paradisum. I liked the fresh tone of the choir and they sing the piece as if they believe in it. Occasionally I wondered if a choir of just twenty-two is a little on the small side for this work, even when accompanied only by organ.
The solo roles are done well by Christine Rice and Mark Stone although some may feel that the sound of their fully-fledged voices is just a little out of scale with the performance. Guy Johnston partners Miss Rice with a lovely account of the cello line in Pie Jesu. I’ve a couple of mild reservations about the organ accompaniment, even though it’s very well played by Tristan Mitchard. Once or twice the organ pedals sound a bit muddy in quiet passages - I noticed this particularly at the start of the Domine Jesu Christe movement. More seriously, in the In Paradisum movement at cue 101, just before the full choir enters, the organ has a crucially important solo line which continues for most of the rest of the movement. In this performance for much of the time this line is submerged under the choir, which is a great pity. These instances make me wonder if the Douai organ doesn’t possess quite the necessary range of stops for this work.
David Crown has clearly prepared his choir very well and directs the performance with assurance. In the Domine Jesu Christe movement he slows the tempo down at ‘Quam olim Abrahae’ (5:05). That’s not marked in the vocal score and I don’t think it quite works; it makes the music sound a bit sentimental. The Sanctus is taken at a speed that’s slower than the metronome marking - and slower than the composer in his own recording (review); the result comes across as a bit sluggish. Otherwise Crown’s direction is sure-footed. In particular he’s successful in maintaining the flow that’s so vital in this plainchant-derived music where bar lines are there almost as a matter of practical convenience and little else.
The coupling is most unusual and very enterprising. Most recordings of the Duruflé Requiem couple it with French music, either by Duruflé or by other French composers. However, David Crown has opted for an English work that was written almost contemporaneously with the Duruflé. Robin Milford’s music has largely fallen into neglect these days and I must confess that his Mass for Five Voices was new to me: has it been recorded before? Milford was a pupil of Holst and Vaughan Williams in the 1920s and James Percival tells us in his very useful notes that Milford’s subsequent career involved him quite a lot in choral music.
The Mass was originally entitled Mass for Christmas Morning though it has little obvious connection with Christmas; it was given its present title after Milford’s death at the request of his niece. According to the notes Milford seems to have been inspired to compose the Mass by hearing Zoltan Kodály’s Missa brevis on the radio though I have to say that I don’t hear much in the way of echoes of that powerful masterpiece in Milford’s setting. Milford provided an ad lib organ part but this is not used here, except in the Credo, and even there the organ part is not hugely important, it seems.
The music is very modal and the harmonies are fluid and frequently tricky; it sounds far from easy and, to be honest, the Somerville choir sounds a bit taxed by the music at times. They sing the music with evident commitment but the singing isn’t always polished - the tenors sometimes sound a bit youthfully raw - and intonation doesn’t always sound completely secure; a case in point is the Sanctus, which sounds as if it contains some of the most challenging music in the work. I wonder if part of the trouble is the recording venue. I’m not familiar with the chapel at Somerville College but I wonder if it’s a smaller building - and acoustic - than Douai Abbey and so places the singers under a more merciless scrutiny. Perhaps it would have been fairer to the choir if the Milford had also been recorded at Douai. However, this is a creditable recording of a worthwhile setting of the Mass and if its presence in the catalogue encourages other choirs to take it up then the Somerville choir will have done Robin Milford a fine service.
There are lots of recordings of the Duruflé Requiem in the catalogue, including several excellent ones. I don’t think this newcomer challenges the market leaders but it’s a decent performance and the coupling is both enterprising and rewarding.
A decent Duruflé Requiem with an enterprising coupling.
see also review by Paul Corfield Godfrey