Maurice DURUFLÉ (1902-1986)
Requiem, Op. 9 (1947) [37:47]
Quatre motets sur des thèmes grégoriens, Op. 10 [7:44]
Organ works:
Méditation, Op. posth [4:04]
Prélude et Fugue sur le nom d’ALAIN, Op. 7 [12:31]
Fugue sur le thème du carillon des heures de la cathédrale de Soissons, Op. 12 [3:52]
Prélude, adagio et choral varié sur le thème du Veni Creator, Op. 4 [20:36]
Prélude sur l'Introït de l'Epiphanie [2:12]
Scherzo, Op. 2 [6:01]
Chant donné - hommage à Jean Gallon [1:59]
Suite, Op. 5 [23 :35]
Randi Stene (soprano); Bo Skovhus (baritone); Henrik Brendstrup (cello); Kristian Krogsøe (organ); Aarhus Cathedral Choir; Vocal Group Concert Clemens/Carsten Seyer-Hansen
rec. May 2010 (choral works) and February - April 2012 (organ works), Aarhus Cathdral, Denmark
DANACORD DACOCD726 [62:17 + 58:21]
I requested this set mainly for the choral music, having had the immense privilege to conduct it with different amateur groups on several occasions over the past few years. If I feel less qualified to judge the organ music, it’s because I have a slight allergy to the instrument itself. Stravinsky put it most succinctly: “The monster never breathes”. That doesn’t excuse me. With that as a background, I’m happy to report that the organ works on this disc have provided me with real and unexpected pleasure. We read in the long, informative and bumpily translated booklet essay that Duruflé’s vision - if vision is the right word - of the ideal organ was “a combination of the pompous French type of orchestral instruments, represented by the builder Cavaillé-Coll, and the traditional instruments from the Baroque period”. I think he would have found the instrument at Aarhus Cathedral to his taste, and he surely would have appreciated the playing and registration choices of Kristian Krogsøe. The textures of the tiny Prélude sur l'Introït de l'Epiphanie are admirably clear, as they also are in the early Scherzo and the more elaborate Prélude, adagio and choral varié, a longer work in three linked movements. I’ve never heard the clock chiming from the cathedral at Soissons, and if I hadn’t read the title beforehand I’m not even sure that I should have known that Duruflé’s piece based on those chimes was a fugue. It is in dancing three-time, and organ lovers will probably not share with me the slight feeling - and that in spite of my overall reaction to this collection - that the instrument, by its very nature, transforms its high spirits into something vaguely elephantine. Duruflé apparently came to dislike the toccata final movement of his Op. 5 Suite, but it is awesomely impressive here, particularly after the tranquil meditations that make up the most part of the two preceding movements. The performance strikes me as outstanding. The composer’s favourite amongst his organ works was the piece whose thematic material is derived from the letters of the name of the composer Jehan Alain, who died in combat in 1940. Having listened several times to this collection, I think it is my favourite too.
The main weakness of many non-French - and in particular, many English - performances of Duruflé’s Requiem arises from the mistaken belief that since the work is based on Gregorian chant the music must inevitably inhabit the same rarefied world. In fact the finest performances of this sublime work do nothing to hide the Gregorian origins of most of the thematic material, yet at the same time bring out the depth of feeling behind the notes. This Danish performance is more successful than many in this respect, though still leaving room for a little more passion. The opening is a case in point. Whilst the men intone the chant in unison, the women break in three times with a wordless vocalise. The first time this is marked pp, the second time mp and the third mf, a clear instruction to increase intensity. This is more or less ignored here, as it is in so many performances. The “Lux aeterna” is difficult to bring off successfully, as there seems to be so little in the music, and it is disappointingly matter of fact here, when an approach only slightly less rigid would have added immeasurably to the final effect. The very end, too, Duruflé’s attempt to express in music his own vision of eternity: the final chord is marked “very long”, hardly respected here. It follows a closing passage which is mostly too loud. This is all something of a pity, as the choir sings with purity and clarity that fully serves the music and is often very moving. Bo Skovhus is excellent, losing out only to Peter Mattei, on a BIS disc, who provides some of the finest and most moving baritone singing I have ever heard. The mezzo soloist on that disc, Paula Hoffman, is also marginally preferable to Randi Stene, who sings splendidly but whose vibrato rather gets in the way of the intimacy of the “Pie Jesu”. It is striking that the organ and the solo cello are both closer to the listener than is the singer. Some might find the organ too prominent even in the choral passages. This is, nonetheless, an affecting and beautifully sung performance that will bring pleasure to newcomers to the work. I prefer, however, the BIS performance, conducted by Gary Graden, because of the conductor’s more overtly expressive approach. I would also urge readers to hear the version for chamber orchestra as performed on a Naxos disc (8.553196) conducted by Michel Piquemal. The choral singing is far from perfect, and certainly inferior to the performance under review, but it is very French in atmosphere, and rather closer, I think, to the composer’s real intentions.
The Requiem is sung by the combined forces of the Aarhus Cathedral choir and the Vocal Group Concert Clemens. The latter group alone give a refined performance of the four ravishing unaccompanied motets. The technical quality of the singing is near-perfect, but these are once again very straight versions. Those who share with me the view that there is more passion in the music than this will find these accounts a little plain. The Naxos performances are again preferable, though significantly less assured in matters such as tuning. Many of the organ works recorded here are also available in the same Naxos series.
The organ works were, rather to my surprise, a revelation, thanks to the beautiful instrument of Aarhus Cathedral and the outstandingly sensitive playing of Kristian Krogsøe. The choral works are beautifully sung, but are rather strait-laced and cool. It’s a common and viable approach which many will prefer to the more overtly expressive and emotional approach adopted elsewhere.
William Hedley 

A highly satisfying collection of Duruflé’s masterly organ music, coupled with some very fine choral singing from Aarhus.