O Sacrum Convivium! - French Sacred Choral Works
Louis VIERNE (1870-1937)
Messe solenelle, Op 16 (1900) [20:54]
Francis POULENC (1899-1963)
Quatre Petites Prières de Saint François d’Assise, S142 (1948) [6:54]
Olivier MESSIAEN (1908-1992)
O Sacrum Convivium! (1937) [4:48]
Quatre Motets pour un temps de pénitence, S 97 (1938-39) [13:57]
Jean LANGLAIS (1907-1991)
Messe solenelle (1951) [17:59]
Choir of St John’s College, Cambridge/Andrew Nethsingha
Edward Picton-Turbervill and Joseph Wicks (Vierne) (organ)
rec. 2014, St John’s College Chapel, Cambridge
Latin and French texts and English translations included
CHANDOS CHAN10842 [64:25]

Christopher Nickol points out in his useful notes that both Louis Vierne and Jean Langlais had the misfortune to suffer visual handicap during their lives: Vierne was partially blind for almost all his life while Langlais was completely blind from birth. Both were educated – though not at the same time – at the Institut National des Jeunes Aveugles before moving on to study at the Paris Conservatoire. Each composed a Messe solenelle and their respective settings open and close this attractive programme.

The Vierne requires two organs; the Grandes orgues, which would customarily be placed at the West end of a church, and the orgues de choeur, a smaller instrument, designed to accompany the choir and located much closer to the choir stalls. Nowadays it’s common to have the organ parts combined into one and the notes say that this is what happens on this recording though a second organist, Joseph Wicks is specifically credited. My copy of the vocal score has the organ music combined into one part and I didn’t find it too easy to discern exactly where one organ takes over from the other in this present performance.

The Vierne Mass opens thunderously with a massive organ introduction, clearly intended for the Grandes orgues. The Mander organ in the St. John’s Chapel makes a splendid sound and it’s impressively recorded by the engineering team — producer Rachel Smith and engineer Jonathan Cooper. I’ve long been in thrall to a 1997 Hyperion recording of the work (CDA66898), which I see was much admired also by the late Adrian Smith. There the Westminster Cathedral organ is hugely imposing. However, in the cavernous acoustic of the cathedral it doesn’t register quite as clearly as does the St John’s instrument here. Vierne’s Kyrie is often boldly dramatic. It’s very well done here though I feel that the Westminster trebles perhaps have a more open-throated sound and a keener cutting edge to their voices. The Gloria gets off to an exciting, energetic start and, indeed, the entire movement is impressively done, not least the spirited conclusion. There’s no setting of the Creed – nor does Langlais provide one. The majestic Sanctus comes off well. In the Benedictus I did wonder if the choir was truly achieving the marked piano – they sounded closer to a mezzo piano. That may be due to close microphone placing but a degree of mystery is missing. That’s also my impression of the Agnus Dei though this lovely and fluent music is in every other respect very well done.

The Langlais Mass is a different proposition, not least through the somewhat more austere tone of the music. Like the Vierne it was composed with two separate organ parts but I presume that in this instance the two organ parts have been combined into one since no mention is made of a second player. The Kyrie is a very intense plea for mercy and in an exciting, committed performance the choir really rises to the drama of the music, as does Edward Picton-Turbervill at the organ console. Fugal writing plays an important part in the Gloria and there are also several very forceful interjections from the organ. Here the choir is once again on fine form and the organ part, expertly played, is captured with stunning realism on the recording. The Sanctus and Benedictus are very different in character, the former dynamic, the latter tranquil and reflective. However, the concluding ‘Hosanna’ is common to both and here the St John’s trebles follow a precedent established by Dr George Guest, rising to an optional top C on the word ‘excelsis’; it’s highly effective.. The Agnus Dei is striking and dramatic and very well done by the choir. Once again, the performance of the organ part is magnificent and I relished some of the innovative sounds that Edward Picton-Turbervill conjures from the organ.

The remainder of the programme is unaccompanied. When one considers how much of Messiaen’s music is suffused with his Catholic faith it’s astonishing that his sole contribution to liturgical vocal music is O Sacrum Convivium! The mystical music seems unfettered by bar lines and Messiaen establishes a rapt mood of devotion that is almost voluptuous at times – not least the gorgeous languorous ‘Alleluia’ for the trebles near the end. Nethsingha and his choir make a fine job of the piece.

The two Poulenc offerings are strongly contrasted. Quatre Petites Prières de Saint François d’Assise is for male voices only (TBarB), divided into between three and six parts. Christopher Nickol reminds us that the music was written for the Franciscan monastery at Champfleury – hence the choice of texts by the founder of the Franciscan order. If the intention was that the friars themselves would sing this work then they must have been a musically accomplished community. The music is not easy though the harmonic language is simpler than in many Poulenc works and the writing is mainly homophonic. I like the good, forward sound made by the St John’s tenors and basses – twelve singers in all – and their collective timbre suits the music.

The better-known Quatre Motets pour un temps de pénitence is for SATB choir and contains some of Poulenc’s finest and most expressive choral music. The writing is often very intense: the third piece, ‘Tenebrae factae sunt’ seems to compress all the searing emotion of Good Friday into just over four minutes of music. The concluding ‘Tristis est anima mea’, a setting of words in which Christ foretells his fate, contains very dramatic, highly charged music. The performances are very good indeed.

This disc offers high-quality French sacred music in very accomplished and satisfying performances. It may be objected by some that the sound of the St John’s choir is English. However, what surely matters is the spirit and the skill with which the music is performed and on both counts I find these musicians pass the test. It’s interesting to note in passing the extent to which English choirs have taken up both of these Mass settings: I have in my collection recordings of the Vierne from Westminster Cathedral and Truro Cathedral and of both the Langlais and Vierne from Gloucester Cathedral where Andrew Nethsingha formerly plied his trade, albeit those recordings pre-date his time in Gloucester. So it would seem that both compositions have been accepted on the UK side of the Channel.

The sound and documentation are both up to the usual high Chandos standard.

John Quinn

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