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Gabriel FAURÉ (1845-1924)
Requiem (1877-1893) [30:50]
Charles GOUNOD (1818-1893)
Ave Verum (1853) [3:14]
Les sept derniers paroles du Christ sur la croix (1855) [20:00]
Andrew Foster-Williams (bass-baritone)
Flemish Radio Choir
Brussels Philharmonic Soloists/Hervé Niquet
rec. June 2013, Hollands College, Leuven, Belgium (Gounod); April 2014, Flagey, Belgium (Fauré)
Latin texts, Dutch, English, French translations included

I can’t readily think of a record label with a more quirky name than Evil Penguin. However, if this CD, which is the first of theirs to come my way, is typical then there’s absolutely nothing quirky about the discs that they issue. This release is stylish in every way, even if the playing time is short.

Hervé Niquet is perhaps best known for his work with Le Concert Spirituel, the specialist Baroque ensemble that he founded in 1987. However, he has other strings to his musical bow and one of them is his work with the Flemish Radio Choir of which he has been chief conductor since 2011. This disc is the first in a planned series of five, each of which will include a setting of the Requiem.

The evolution of the score of Fauré’s Requiem isn’t straightforward and for a summary I refer readers to my review of Stephen Cleobury’s recent recording. The length of the gestation of the work is reflected in the dates, 1877-1893, which are given in the booklet of this present disc. In the notes Niquet says that he has based his performance on the original ‘Madeleine’ version of the score “augmented with the baritone parts added for the second version”. In fact, in most respects his reading of the score seems to adhere to the 1893 version. In a couple of the session photos in the booklet copies of John Rutter’s edition of that score are clearly visible and following the performance in my own copy of that score I could detect few differences, with one important exception which I’ll mention in a minute.

I can sum up this performance quite easily: it’s a very fine one. Indeed, it’s one of the very best performances of the 1893 version that I can recall hearing on disc. There are 24 members of the Flemish Radio Choir – six voices to each part – and they sing with impressive precision of ensemble and a very pleasing tone which is light yet firm. In the relatively few passages where loud singing is required there’s ample power while the blend and balance is well-nigh faultless. They employ French pronunciation of the Latin, to which I found I very quickly adjusted. So too does their guest soloist, the British bass-baritone, Andrew Foster-Williams. I enjoyed both of his solos very much indeed; his voice is firmly focussed and the tone is consistently pleasing.

You’ll have noticed that I refer to only one soloist. In the most obvious departure from the 1893 score – and decades of performance tradition - the ‘Pie Jesu’, beloved of soprano soloists the world over, is sung by all six of the choir’s sopranos. Explaining this decision, Niquet says that he had in mind early liturgical performances of the work when the deceased or the family of the deceased might not have had the means to pay for two soloists. In that case a choirmaster could have taken a pragmatic decision to use a group of sopranos or trebles in this movement. It’s an ingenious thought and though the approach is novel I found that on this occasion the unanimity and purity of Niquet’s sopranos vindicated his decision. I’m not sure I should want to hear this approach adopted too often by others, however.

The other thing that may cause a few eyebrows to rise in this otherwise exemplary performance is the speed that Niquet adopts for the Offertorium. The tempo indication in the Rutter score is Adagio molto. By no stretch of the imagination does Niquet’s fleet speed fit that description; his tempo is closer to a flowing andante. I’ve never heard the movement taken so swiftly. It’s expertly sung and played but Niquet simply doesn’t allow the music space in which to breathe and expand. In particular that’s cruelly evident at the end when the brisk speed militates against the wonderful ‘Amen’ rising and falling in the gently expressive way that it should. This seems to me to be a serious misjudgement in a performance of the Requiem that in all other respects I enjoyed enormously.

The players of the Brussels Philharmonic Soloists make a very fine contribution to the Fauré performance but they are not involved in the Gounod pieces, which are for unaccompanied choir. These works, both of which were new to me, come from the same period as Gounod’s most celebrated choral work, the St. Cecilia Mass, which was completed in 1854 and first performed the following year. The music that’s presented here by Niquet and his choir couldn’t be more different from that very ’public’ and quasi-operatic Mass setting for soloists, choir and orchestra. Here, instead, we find Gounod working in a much more restrained and intimate style which may come as a surprise to many, as it did to me.

Ave Verum is simple and devotional in style. The music is gentle and homophonic for the most part with pure harmonic language. It’s a simple, expressive if modest piece. Les sept derniers du Christ sur la croix is actually in eight sections because there’s a Prologue as well. Stefan Grondelaers comments in the notes that here Gounod sought to emulate the music of Palestrina, which he had come to admire very much. Incidentally, in the heading to this review I’ve shown the date, 1855, which is in the booklet’s track listing but the music is probably slightly later than that because Mr. Grondelaers states that the work was composed in 1858 and revised in 1866. I’ve been unable to discover for myself the exact date of composition. Grondelaers comments that the work ‘stands out for its austerity’ and I think that’s a pretty fair judgement. The pieces are very well crafted and mix dignity and expressiveness. Especially impressive is the fifth section, ‘Tenebrae factae sunt’. Here the opening music is dark and oppressively hushed and later, at the words “Eloi, Eloi, lamma sabachtani”, the tone is appropriately anguished, something which is emphasised here by the way in which the singers deliberately harden their tone in a most effective way. Les sept derniers du Christ sur la croix is quite unlike any other music by Gounod that I’ve heard and it comes as something of a revelation, especially in a performance of such high quality as this present one.

These excellent and thoughtful performances, set down in two different venues and several months apart, are recorded in clean, clear sound. The presentation is admirable: interesting notes, the texts and several session photographs are all contained in a hardback book-style case. As I said at the start, this is a stylish release. I look forward to the other releases in this series.

John Quinn