Maurice DURUFLÉ (1902-1986)
Requiem, Op. 9 (1961 version with small orchestra) [37:36]
Quatre Motets sur des Thèmes Grégoriennes, Op. 10 (1960) [7:32]
Messe ‘Cum Jubilo’, Op. 11 (1967 version with organ) [20:41]
Patricia Bardon (mezzo); Ashley Riches (bass-baritone) Tom Etheridge and Richard Gowers (organ)
Choir of King’s College, Cambridge
Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment/Stephen Cleobury
rec. 7-8, 11-12 January 2015, Chapel of King’s College, Cambridge
Latin texts and English translations included

Maurice Duruflé’s Requiem was composed in 1947 as a work for soloists, choir, organ and orchestra. The following year a version for organ only was produced. Later still, in 1961, Duruflé issued a third version in which the accompaniment is provided by organ and a small orchestra of strings (here 6/5/4/3/2), three trumpets, timpani and harp. I prefer to hear the work in either its 1948 incarnation or in the 1961 version, chosen by Stephen Cleobury.

This performance of the Requiem is a very good one. The use of the OAE with their period instruments brings dividends, not least in the dusky string sound. The crucial organ part is very well played by Tom Etheridge and the instrument is well balanced by recording engineer, Arne Akselberg. In particular, the important plainsong counter-melody in the second half of ‘In Paradisum’, which begins just before the choir sings ‘Chorus angelorum …’ is often masked by the singers; that doesn’t happen here.

The choir sings very well, as you’d expect, though they produce a very English sound. That doesn’t bother me – though the male altos are very English in timbre – but some listeners may crave a more French sound in this music. There are two short passages, one in the ‘Domine Jesu Christe’ movement and one in the ‘Libera me’, which are often sung by a baritone soloist. However, there’s a note in the vocal score which advises that ‘il est préférable’ for the baritones and second tenors to sing this passage in unison and that’s the choice that Stephen Cleobury makes. I’m glad of that, even though it means that we don’t get to hear Ashley Riches until the Messe ‘Cum Jubilo’.

The fifth movement, the ‘Pie Jesu’ is for mezzo soloist with an important part for solo cello. Here the cello part is very nicely played – by the OAE’s principal, Luise Buchberger, I presume – though I would have been happy if the instrument had been a fraction more prominent. The singer is Patricia Bardon, who sings with rich tone and a good deal of vibrato. For my taste her sound and style seems rather fulsome for this music. Also, unless my ears deceive me – and I’ve listened several times in order to check – it seems that her tuning on a few low notes is not completely true. I much prefer both the approach adopted and the sound produced either by Sarah Connolly on the Vasari Singers’ recording (review) or by Ann Murray on the recording by Matthew Best and the Corydon Singers (Hyperion CDA67070).

It’s a pity the mezzo soloist is a bit disappointing – though others may feel differently – because there’s a great deal else to admire. Cleobury paces the music very well, allowing the plainchant-inspired music to flow as if the bar lines weren’t present. There aren’t too many dramatic moments in this score – it’s a long way from Verdi – but those opportunities are grasped. So, there’s a strong, fervent climax at ‘Christe eleison’ in the second movement and in the Sanctus he achieves an impressive build-up to the majestic climax on ‘Hosanna’, at which point the trumpets ring out splendidly. The drama and fire of the brief ‘Dies irae’ section in the eighth movement comes over very strikingly.

On the other side of the coin, in the limpid passage, ‘Sed signifier Michael’ in the third movement the King’s trebles are suitably ethereal – though, for me, Cleobury presses the tempo just a fraction too much here. The wonderful, gently radiant ‘In Paradisum’ is beautifully done.

On balance I prefer the sound of an SATB choir in this sublime work but I like to hear an all-male choir for a change and unless you have an aversion to hearing it sung this way then this excellent King’s performance will give much pleasure.

As the title indicates, Duruflé continued his fascination with plainchant in his Quatre Motets. The serene Ubi caritas, a fluent gem if ever there was one, is well sung. However, as I listened I wished that the pace had been just a fraction more easeful. Robert Sharpe and the choir of Truro Cathedral seem to me to get the pace just right – their performances lasts a mere 12 seconds longer than the Cleobury account but the difference is noticeable (review). I must confess, too, a sneaking liking for the way the Truro performance is captured in the much bigger and more resonant acoustic of the Cornish cathedral. The King’s trebles sound a bit piping to me in Tota pulchra es Maria though this is challenging music to articulate – in this motet the resonant Truro acoustic blurs the sound too much on that recording. Tantum ergo is given a suave, lovely performance in Cambridge.

The ‘Cum Jubilo’ Mass was composed in 1966 with organ and orchestral accompaniment but the following year Duruflé provided an alternative version with accompaniment by organ only. This version I find preferable; it seems to suit the music and it’s right for the vocal forces involved. The vocal forces comprise a chorus of baritones, who sing in unison throughout, and a baritone soloist. As with the other works on this disc the music is utterly steeped in plainchant.

The King’s baritones sing very well indeed and the recording presents them ideally with the resonance of the chapel’s acoustic imparting a most pleasing aural halo to the music. The long, melismatic lines of the Kyrie are very satisfying to hear in this performance. The Gloria explodes jubilantly, the singers full-throated and Richard Gowers making a fine contribution from the organ loft. Midway through the Gloria, at ‘Domine, fili unigenite’ there’s an extended baritone solo, sung here by Ashley Riches who, as a former King’s Choral Scholar, is back on home turf. I’ve heard him sing live a few times, most recently in Elgar (review), and I’ve always liked what I’ve heard. He’s quite splendid in this solo. Later on the brief Benedictus is a tranquil solo for the baritone and Riches excels, his firm, warm tone giving great pleasure. The choir takes over for the closing section of the Gloria and they do it thrillingly. Equally, the Sanctus builds to a fervent climax. The Agnus Dei is calm and beautiful and here, as well as the sensitive choral singing, I greatly admired the playing of the lovely organ part. In this work Duruflé put a twentieth-century slant on the ancient monastic tradition of unison male-voice singing and the results are very fine.

One or two small reservations aside this is an excellent disc. The performances have been very well recorded and the documentation is good.

John Quinn

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