The main attraction of this disc lies in the opportunity to hear a Requiem Mass that may well be new to many collectors; the setting by the fairly obscure French composer, Alfred Desenclos. In fact, I’ve encountered it before in a recording by the French ensemble, Les Éléments, which I reviewed in 2005.
In his very useful notes David Trendall tells us that the Requiem was written in 1963, which is the date given in other sources that I’ve seen though, oddly, on the website of the publishers, Éditions Durand, the date is given as 1962. Like the Requiems of Fauré and Duruflé it can be performed with either organ or orchestral accompaniment; the notes accompanying the Hortus recording imply that in the case of the Desenclos piece the orchestral version came first and the organ version is a reduction of that scoring.
The name of Alfred Desenclos may be unfamiliar to many people so a little biographical information, gleaned from the booklets of the two recordings, may help. He was born in the town of Portel in the Pas-de-Calais département of Northern France, the seventh of a family of ten children. He was obliged through family financial circumstances to work as an industrial designer until he was 20 years old though at the age of 17 he was able to become a piano student at the conservatoire in the northern French town of Roubaix, where later in life he became the director. Three years later he enrolled at the Paris Conservatoire and excelled there, winning the Prix de Rome in 1942. During his time in Paris he earned some money by serving as choirmaster in the Parisian church of Notre-Dame-de-Lorette and during his time at the church he wrote some small-scale religious pieces. In the late 1940s and 1950s secular compositions, including a symphony, occupied him and he was also interested in jazz. He returned to religious composition with the two short pieces included on this present disc and his Requiem, one of his largest pieces, it seems, followed five years later. I’m afraid I’ve been unable to discover any information about his later life other than to learn that his son, Frédéric (b. 1961) has become a noted organist and, indeed, he plays the organ part on the Hortus disc.
I think one can safely say that anyone who likes the Requiems of Fauré and Duruflé should respond positively to the Desenclos; it’s recognisably cut from the same cloth, though Desenclos is his own man. Revisiting my 2005 review of the Hortus disc I see that I was somewhat sniffy about the Desenclos Requiem, saying that its melodic inspiration was nowhere near as memorable in comparison to its illustrious predecessors and, dare one say, rivals, by Fauré and Duruflé. I still think that comparison is justified though, of course, Duruflé gave himself the not inconsiderable advantage of rooting his Requiem in the timeless melodies of plainchant while Fauré was a supremely gifted melodist. However, Desenclos has his own strengths and a prime merit of his Requiem is the rich, often saturated, harmonic language. I’ve come to revise my opinion of the Desenclos for reasons that I’ll explain in due course.
Most of the music centres on the choir though the independent organ part is extremely important – and interesting. There are some passages, short though important, for SATB soloists from within the choir – David Trendall splits these passages between seven voices. Trendall comments in his very helpful notes that the music is ‘influenced’ by plainchant without actually using any chant melodies. I must say that I picked up the plainchant influences or allusions more readily from this recording than I did from the Hortus disc. The harmonic writing is usually very rich and full and yet in neither of these recordings does one have the impression of the harmonies being cloying or overheated. This is a richly romantic work and it seems to me that Desenclos colours the words with his harmonies very expertly.
The Requiem is cast in seven sections – the Agnus Dei and Communion (‘Libera me Domine’) are combined. Much of the writing is beautiful and serene though several times the music achieves very full climaxes. As you might expect, the tempi are mainly slow, except in the ‘Libera me’ where, as befits the text, the writing becomes more urgent and the pace a little quicker. David Trendall is not afraid to give the music time and space to breathe and his reading is noticeably more expansive than that of his rival, Joël Suhubiette. Trendall takes 38:29 in all while Suhubiette gets through the work in just 30:36: in the opening movement Suhubiette takes exactly two minutes less than Trendall.
I said I’d come to revise my estimation of the work and there are two prime reasons for this. The first is that though Les Éléments, a professional choir, sings well I find the King’s College performance stronger and more convincing. The English choir is somewhat larger (10/7/5/7) than the French group (5/4/4/4) and they perform the work with commitment and finesse. They have a good, firm foundation provided by their bass section while the sopranos offer fresh, pure sound. The inner parts are completely secure and blend well. So, though the French choir is comprised of professional singers who, one imagines, are more experienced than these British students the King’s choir acquit themselves very well indeed and need not fear the competition. Despite the authoritative presence of the composer’s son at the console of an authentic French organ I find the organ part to be more convincing on this new recording. That’s partly because Christopher Woodward, who plays extremely well, seems to have a wider range of colours available to him on the Exeter College organ and uses registrations more imaginatively than Desenclos fils appears to do. However, Woodward’s playing is enhanced by the recorded sound, which is the second thing that’s caused me to revise my view of the Requiem.
On the Hortus disc both the choir and the organ are recorded somewhat more distantly than is the case on the Delphian disc. The Delphian label is well known for producing excellent recorded sound with plenty of presence and that’s the case here. The sound is beautifully balanced, clear and atmospheric and so the sound of the British choir and organ has much more presence and, let’s be honest, more punch.
Hortus offers a further selection of short piece by Desenclos, which is welcome, including the two that are included in the King’s programme. Both of these pieces are well worth hearing. Trendall and his choir offer also three a cappella pieces by Pierre Villette. These include the beguiling Hymne à la Vierge, which has become quite well known in recent years, and two less familiar pieces, O sacrum convivium and Attende Domine. Both are well worth hearing. O sacrum convivium is in eight parts and is overtly ecstatic - more so than, say Messiaen’s wonderful setting of the same text. Here Villette exploits a rich,, sensuous harmonic palette. Attende Domine, a Lenten piece, is more austere as befits the text. It’s strongly projected by the King’s choir who also make a fine job of the lovely Hymne à la Vierge.
The programme is completed by a performance of Poulenc’s Litanies à la Vierge noire for which the ladies of the choir are joined by the college’s other Organ Scholar, Richard Hall. This is fine music, often beautiful, occasionally dramatic and always deeply felt and it gets an eloquent reading here.
David Trendall and his choir have impressed me on several of their previous recordings for Delphian but I fancy this might just be their best and most valuable recording to date. It’s certainly given me a much deeper appreciation of the lovely Requiem by Desenclos, a work that is here revealed to be a worthy successor in the Fauré/Duruflé lineage and a setting that is well worth getting to know.