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French Sacred Choral Works
Louis VIERNE (1870-1937)
Messe solennelle, Op. 16 (1900) [20.54]
Francis POULENC (1899-1963)
Quatre Petites Prières de Saint François d’Assise (1948) [6.54]
Olivier MESSIAEN (1908-1992)
O sacrum convivium! (1937) [4.48]
Francis POULENC (1899-1963)
Quatre motets pour un temps de pénitence (1938/39) [13.57]
Jean LANGLAIS (1907-1991)
Messe solennelle (1951) [17.50]
Choir of St. John’s College, Cambridge/Andrew Nethsingha
Edward Picton-Turbervill (organ)
Joseph Wicks (second organ part, Vierne)
rec. 2014, St. John’s College Chapel, Cambridge, UK
Full texts with English translations provided
CHANDOS CHAN 10842 [64.25]

The Choir of St John’s College, Cambridge under Andrew Nethsingha has here recorded an attractive collection of five twentieth-century French sacred choral works with three requiring organ.

The most substantial scores are those by Vierne, Poulenc and Langlais. Not surprisingly three of the four composers studied at the Paris Conservatoire. Poulenc was the exception; he studied privately.

Poitiers-born composer Louis Vierne, almost completely blind from birth, is best known as principal organist at Cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris. He served there from 1909 until his death in 1937. Composed in 1900 his Messe solennelle in C sharp major, Op. 16 was dedicated to Théodore Dubois who was at that time director of the Paris Conservatoire. When the score was introduced at Saint-Sulpice church in 1901 Saint-Saëns was at the grand organ and Vierne at the choir organ. The opening Kyrie eleison - a heartfelt plea for God’s mercy - with its prominent organ part is stunning full of stark contrasts.

Poulenc, Parisian born and bred, faced many personal struggles and his religious conviction faded. His Roman Catholic faith was reignited in his mid-thirties by the horrific death in a car accident of his friend the composer Pierre-Octave Ferroud; his Symphony has been recorded by Marco Polo (8.225029) and Auvidis-Valois (V4909). This provided him with the motivation to write a number of sacred scores generally darker-hued and with a more contemplative nature. From 1948 the Quatre petites prières de Saint François d’Assise (Four small prayers of St. Francis of Assisi) for men’s choir was written at the request of Friar Jérome Poulenc at the Franciscan monastery choir at Champfleury; who was a relative of the composer. In these pieces Poulenc blends the textures of plainchant and early polyphony with his individual style. A short rather intimate work this sequence is probably less immediately appealing compared to some of his other sacred scores.

Poulenc’s second work here from 1938-39, the four movement Quatre motets pour un temps de pénitence (Four Lenten Motets) for mixed choir, comprises settings of liturgical texts used during Lent. Poulenc said that they “are as realistic and tragic as an Andrea Mantegna painting.” A thoughtful touch is that each of the Quatre motets is dedicated to a friend of the composer. Sounding remarkably well in this magnificent score, the Choir of St John’s College, Cambridge generate a notable sense of sacred awe.

A native of Avignon spending much of his student and working life in Paris, Oliver Messiaen found his Roman Catholic faith a constant source of inspiration. Written in 1937 the text of the Motet O sacrum convivium! is taken from an antiphon for the feast of Corpus Christi. According to Christopher Nickol in the liner-notes Messiaen employs, “chromatic harmonies … the rhythmic augmentation of note values as a liberation from regular beats.” This short score lasts just under five minutes and makes its presence felt strongly. The St. John’s College choir create a mainly contemplative sacred atmosphere of thanksgiving in honour of the Blessed Sacrament.

Jean Langlais was born in Brittany and became blind at the age of two. He began organ study in Paris and later studied composition at the Conservatoire. He was titular organist at the Sainte-Clotilde, Paris and served there for over forty years. Christopher Nickol describes the Messe solennelle as written in “striking harmonic language with modal scales… dissonant chords and chromatic harmonic progressions.” This is a powerful score of contrasting sections and with a prominent organ part. I especially admired the opening section sung here with a dark-hued seriousness. It makes for a deeply affecting interpretation.

Recording in an excellent acoustic the Chandos sound team has excelled with well balanced and forthright sonics. Full Latin and French texts are provided together with English translations. Under Andrew Nethsingha's assured direction the choir sing with integrity and a profound devotional intensity. The organists in the Vierne accompany the choir with convincing weight and scale. If the repertoire suits there is absolutely no reason to hesitate about purchasing this Chandos release.

Michael Cookson

Previous review: John Quinn



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