I very nearly didn’t ask to review this new SACD on King’s College’s own label. Much though I love the Fauré Requiem
there are countless versions of it in the catalogue – and I’m sure this very choir has recorded it more than once. Surely we don’t need another
recording? In the end my fondness for the work prevailed and I’m glad that it did because what we have here is not just ‘another’ Fauré Requiem
What Stephen Cleobury has chosen to record for the first time is, we are told in the booklet, “Marc Rigaudière’s reconstruction of the first complete liturgical performance of Fauré’s Requiem
.” In his detailed notes M. Rigaudière explains that this reconstruction refers to a performance in the Church of the Madeleine in Paris, where Fauré was the choirmaster, on 13 February 1889. This was at an annual Mass organised by the French Red Cross in honour of soldiers and sailors killed serving France. On that occasion an all-male choir would have been used, as is the case here. In seeking to recreate the accompaniment that day a small orchestra has been used – the forces are detailed in the booklet. The registrations used on the King’s College Chapel organ have been restricted in order to match as closely as possible those which would have been available on the 1869 Cavaillé-Coll organ in the Church of the Madeleine.
is one of the best-loved choral works in the repertoire but it had an unexpectedly complex early history, only slowly evolving into the score that we know today. M. Rigaudière outlines this in some detail in his excellent notes and there’s also useful information in John Rutter’s preface to the vocal score of his edition of the 1893 score. It’s worth summarising the story – though here we need not go as far forward as Fauré’s 1900 full orchestral version of the work.
The first performance took place, in the Madeleine, on 16 January 1884 at the funeral of one Joseph Le Soufaché. On that occasion five movements were performed: the Introit
; Pie Jesu
; Agnus Dei
and In Paradisum
. That performance wasn’t “complete” in that it omitted two of the movements – the Offertoire
and the Libera Me
– from the score with which we’re all familiar. However, the 1889 Rigaudière version isn’t quite “complete” either because, as we shall see, the version of the Offertoire
is far from being as we know it today.
It would appear that in 1889 the performance included what I can only describe as a truncated version of the Offertoire
in which the choral passages that precede and follow the baritone solo, Hostias et preces
, are absent. Instead, in this performance there’s an extremely perfunctory introduction of just four crotchet beats before Gerald Finley begins to sing. After his solo there’s a single sustained chord in the accompaniment and that’s it. The movement lasts a mere 2:50. Marc Rigaudière argues that in this form the solo adds a new coherence to the score. Whilst respecting his view it’s hard to avoid the feeling that there’s something of a hole in the work as a result and in saying that I genuinely believe I’m not simply exhibiting resistance to change. Rigaudière says that it’s impossible to date precisely when the choral passages were added to the Offertoire
although John Rutter included the full musical text in his edition of the 1893 score so presumably the movement was expanded into the familiar form sometime between 1889 and 1893. The 1893 version of the movement is added as an appendix on this disc.
There are other important differences between the score that’s recorded here and performances that you may have heard before. Some of these relate to matters of dynamics – there are significantly fewer dynamic markings than appear in the 1900 score, we are told. Other differences relate to details of the orchestral scoring, some of which are quite significant. They’re covered in the booklet note; I’ll simply say that I found the accompaniment in this performance highly persuasive.
As for the performance itself, it’s a very good one. The choir sings very well indeed – as you’d expect. Sometimes in the past I’ve felt that the King’s trebles sound a bit too precise and cultured in their singing and in the articulation of the words; that’s not the case here. I also liked the sound of the tenors and male altos: their combination in the opening of the “full”, Rutter version of the Offertoire
, where the alto and tenor lines are gently pitted against each other, is admirable. There seems to be some deference to French vowel pronunciation but this is not overdone in the way I felt was slightly the case in a live performance of the work that I heard last year (review
). What we hear from King’s seems to me to be a healthy Anglo-French compromise. Incidentally, I noticed that among the credits for this recording was the name of the baritone Stephen Varcoe, a Choral Scholar at Kings (1967-70), who acted as language coach for the project. The choral parts can be heard with exemplary clarity yet the lines all blend very well too.
Gerald Finley, another former King’s Choral Scholar, I believe, represents luxury casting for the baritone solos and his contribution is distinguished: I relished his warm, firm tone and the way in which he articulates the text. This isn’t the first time that a King’s recording of the work has featured one of the trebles singing the Pie Jesu
. Back in 1967 on the celebrated recording conducted by Sir David Willcocks (review
) the solo was sung by Master Robert Chilcott – now even better known to the musical world as the composer, Bob Chilcott. His successor in 2014 is Tom Pickard and he makes a splendid job of the solo, singing in an innocent, unaffected way and with exemplary control. Bravo!
Stephen Cleobury keeps the music on the move, imparting flow at all times. While he most certainly doesn’t short change us in terms of expressiveness he’s very careful to avoid any hint of sentimentality – and rightly so. As I’ve indicated already, the accompaniment adds significantly to the enjoyment of the performance. For the most part the sound of the small orchestra is mellow and soft-grained, as it should be, but this means that when the brass and timpani make their contributions their interventions are important and register tellingly. Douglas Tan plays the crucial organ part with discretion but you always know the organ is there, providing the foundation for the whole performance.
The forces involved here are suitably modest – 31 singers in the choir, and in the orchestra 16 string players, 7 brass players, timpani, harp and organ. If you factor in the use of period instruments, the care over organ registration and the sympathetic acoustic of the King’s chapel the result is a very satisfying exposition of Fauré’s score in which there’s a great deal of intimacy but into which a satisfying amount of dramatic edge is injected at the appropriate points.
I think this Rigaudière is very interesting and well worth hearing. The score was published in 2011 and I wonder how widely it will be taken up: I suspect most choirs will stick to the more familiar texts, especially on account of the truncated Offertoire
The Cantique de Jean Racine
is performed in its original version for choir and organ. This is a gorgeous little piece of which I never tire and I enjoyed this suave King’s performance very much indeed.
Lastly, we hear the little Messe Basse
for high voices and organ. Originally co-composed by Fauré and André Messager in 1881, Fauré revised it in 1906, excising Messager’s music. It’s this version that’s sung here. It’s a charming, unpretentious work of beguiling simplicity. Only rarely and briefly, as in the three-part Dona nobis pacem
at the end of the Agnus Dei
, is the music in more than two parts. There are contributions from two more excellent treble soloists, Joshua Curtis and Adam Banwell, and the King’s trebles as a group give a delightful, fresh performance.
The SACD sound is very pleasing and the documentation is excellent. The playing time is somewhat parsimonious but the quality of the music and performances more than compensate.