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Sacrum Convivium
Maurice DURUFLE (1902-1986)
Quatre motets sur des thèmes grégoriens (1960) [13:24]
Guillaume de MACHAUT (c1300-1377)
Le Lai de Nostre Dame [11:32]
Francis POULENC (1899-1963)
Quatre motets pour un temps de pénitence (1939) [14:31]
Olivier MESSIAEN (1908-1992)
O sacrum convivium! (1937) [5:02]
Vox Clamantis/Jaan-Eik Tulve
rec. 2014, Church of the Transfiguration, Tallinn, Estonia
MIRARE MIR366 [55:37]

The second item on this disc seems somewhat out of place and finds the reviewer well outside his comfort zone. Le Lai de Nostre Dame is an eleven-minute unaccompanied song to a secular text commending the virtues of the Blessed Virgin. It forms part of a programme otherwise made up of twentieth-century French sacred choral music.

Vox Clamantis is an Estonian vocal ensemble. Fourteen members are named in the booklet. Under their founder-director, Jaan-Eik Tulve, they have recorded on the ECM label, notably the music of their compatriot, Arvo Pärt. In the early 1990s Tulve went to Paris to study Gregorian chant, a subject on which he is an acknowledged authority. In this collection, the main works are juxtaposed with passages of plainchant.

Vox Clamantis produces a sound of the utmost purity. We are used to the high standards of choirs from the Baltic countries, but this is exceptional. Voices of great beauty are employed with discreet yet expressive vibrato. Tuning is faultless.

Given Tulve’s background you might expect him to emphasise the Gregorian elements in Maurice Duruflé’s Four Motets, but this is not the case. He has his own ideas about tempo – the fourth motet is significantly slower than Duruflé’s metronome marking, for example – but the result is a refreshingly different view of works that often inspire an over-reverent approach. This is particularly noticeable in the first motet, Ubi caritas, where Tulve and his fine choir produce something rather more muscular, even urgent, than we usually hear. However, these are indeed works closely based on particular Gregorian chants, with the themes present, frequently in the inner voices, pretty much all the time. For this recording, then, each motet is preceded, and in one case also followed, by more or less lengthy passages of the chants themselves. Whilst this is something that would undoubtedly create a powerful atmosphere in concert, I am less sure that lovers of these exquisite pieces will want to hear the chants each time. Sad to say, they will have no choice as the chants are not separately banded.

If coupling Duruflé’s motets with their associated plainchant melodies seems logical, a similar approach to Poulenc’s motets is less easy to justify. Klára Jirsová, in a booklet note that otherwise concentrates heavily on the religious aspects of the texts, sees the three twentieth-century composers ‘seated side by side with plainchant as their common inspiration’. Well, up to a point, maybe. There is no audible plainchant influence – nor even any polyphony to speak of – in Poulenc’s wonderful, sombre, motets. Yet three Gregorian plainchants are inserted here too. They are handsomely sung, and no doubt highly authentic – I am, once again, far from my comfort zone. They are, this time, separately banded so the listener can programme them out if desired. The motets themselves are marvellously done. A small and accomplished group of singers such as this makes for pinpoint accuracy of Poulenc’s often uncompromising harmonies, though the solo soprano voice, important at the close of the fourth motet, is rather lost in the texture against what are, in effect, other solo voices.

Between the Duruflé and the Poulenc comes the long monody by Machaut, beautifully sung by two soloists no doubt drawn from the choir but whose names are, surprisingly, not given. The collection, attractively recorded in a lightly reverberant acoustic, closes with a slow yet tightly controlled performance of the work that gives the album its name, Messiaen’s highly perfumed O sacrum convivium!

William Hedley


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