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Gabriel FAURÉ (1845-1924)
Requiem (ed. Rigaudière) [27:59]
Requiem – Offertoire (ed. Rutter) [8:05]
Cantique de Jean Racine [5:44]
Messe Basse [9:45]
Gerald Finley (baritone), Tom Pickard (treble), Douglas Tang and Tom Etheridge (organ), Choir of King’s College Cambridge
Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment/Stephen Cleobury
rec. 9-14 January 2014, King’s College Chapel, Cambridge
KING’S COLLEGE KGS0005 SACD [51:33]

One of the most popular of all choral masterpieces, beloved of Classicfm, with Gerald Finley as soloist. Add to this one of the world’s best-known all-male choirs in an iconic building. Sounds terrific doesn’t it? I’m describing this recent recording of the Fauré Requiem on King’s College Cambridge’s own label. Is it really a shoe-in for Rob Cowan’s cosy Essential Classics programme on BBC Radio3? Well, let’s see.

For starters, this is a thoughtfully compiled programme. There is not only the Requiem, but also the exquisite Cantique de Jean Racine, and the less well-known Messe Basse for upper voices and organ. The text used for the Requiem is that of the first complete liturgical performance in 1889, some five years after the work had been heard first in its prototypical form. The score has been edited by the French scholar and conductor Marc Rigaudière, and it differs from the edition most often heard in concerts in this country in two notable ways. Firstly the instrumentation: this is principally for strings and organ only, with brass and timpani appearing at a few specific points. Secondly, we hear the simpler version of the Offertorium, which consists solely of the baritone solo, which we are more used to hearing as the central part of the movement, framed by sections for the choir. Helpfully — though potentially a little confusingly — the CD includes on track 9 the ‘complete’ later version of the Offertorium, in John Rutter’s more familiar edition.

The booklet notes make it clear that, although the recording has been made in King’s College Chapel, using the Harrison organ there, the registrations have been carefully restricted. This was in order to reflect the small choir organ used when the work was performed at the great church of the Madeleine in Paris.

An undoubtedly useful and interesting issue then, meticulously prepared and executed. King’s College Chapel Choir is a celebrated ensemble, that guarantees a certain level of musical performance, and their director Stephen Cleobury is a musician of excellence. So this is a CD which is definitely worth hearing.

There are however drawbacks and shortcomings. The recording, although admirably clear, is just a little too close and ‘in your face’, so that the sound sometimes lacks cohesion. I felt sympathy for the little trebles mercilessly exposed at the end of their long final note in the ‘Libera me’. The passages with strings and organ often sound thick and muddy. The orchestra is that of the Age of Enlightenment; if ‘authenticity’ is what this performance seeks, the horns’ powerful, brassy tone is surely well wide of the mark. They sound much more like the LSO in full Mahlerian mode, strident and wide-bore.

More serious for me is the choir’s enunciation of the text; we have ‘Rahh-qui-ahm aeternam, dona ahis Dah-mi-nah’, without a single proper ‘e’ sound to be heard anywhere. The famous ‘Pie Jesu’ movement is really beautifully sung by young Tom Pickard; yet we have the same distressing distortion of vowel sounds, every one turning towards ‘ah’, and about as Anglican and un-French as you can get. On the other hand, the boys’ enunciation in the ‘Cantique de Jean Racine’ is really very good but here they are singing French not Latin. All this is very surprising, especially as the choir are so able, and could surely produce the required range of vowel sounds so easily with a little careful tuition.

I stress that much of the singing is very lovely, and the recording is certainly worth hearing; but when you set out your stall to produce some sort of a ‘period’ performance, there are so many things that you simply cannot ignore. The pronunciation of the text is very much one of them. It was, I must say, a huge relief to hear Gerald Finley, with his, as always, superb diction and carefully coloured vowel sounds.

Numerous reluctant reservations then; but considerable amends are made by the deeply sensitive rendition of the Cantique, as well as the touching simplicity of the Messe Basse.

Gwyn Parry-Jones

Previous review: John Quinn