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Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)
Mass (1948) [18:18]
Krzysztof PENDERECKI (b. 1933)
Iže Cheruvimy [6:42]
Paweł ŁUKASZEWSKI (b. 1968)
Ubi Caritas [5:20]
Lajos BÁRDOS (1899-1986)
Patkóéknál [3:55]
Zoltán KODÁLY(1882-1967)
Esti Dal [3:01]
Túrót ëszik a cigány [2:12]
Béla BARTÓK (1881-1945)
Children’s Choruses [5:07]
Four Russian Peasant Songs [3:44]
Laudes Organi (1966) [21:36]
Maîtrise de Toulouse/Mark Opstad
with double wind quintet (Mass) and Jeremiah Stephenson (organ) (Laudes Organi)
rec. 2017, Temple du Salin, Toulouse, France
REGENT REGCD513 [69:53]

The Maîtrise de Toulouse (“maîtrise” in this sense means a children’s choir) was established in 2006 as part of the Toulouse Conservatoire. Its members are all pupils at the same Toulouse secondary school and follow a special timetable that allows for four rehearsals each week. The upper voices are frequently augmented by former members, allowing access, as on this disc, to a wider range of repertoire. The choir was created by its present conductor, Mark Opstad. Like him, I live and work in Southwest France and he is an acquaintance.

The choir’s previous recordings have concentrated on French music: this one takes the group in a remarkable new direction. The repertoire here would hardly be a natural ‘fit’ for most young people – though we tend to accept this without too much surprise when we think of English cathedral choristers. Knowing French youngsters as I do, I wonder at Opstad’s powers of persuasion. These children throw themselves into this unlikely programme with extraordinary enthusiasm and appetite.

A series of short pieces, some for upper voices only, are framed by two major works for mixed choir. Penderecki’s Iže Cheruvimy was composed as a sixtieth birthday present for Mstislav Rostropovich. There’s much Orthodox resonance in this powerful piece, and its multiple vocal divisions represent only one of its many challenges. The language – more of this later – is another. Those who, like me, would place Maurice Duruflé’s motet, Ubi Caritas, near the summit of the choral repertoire, and that despite its two-minute duration, will be intrigued to find a new setting of the same text in this collection, by the Polish composer, Paweł Łukaszewski, and commissioned by the choir. The work receives its first recording here. If you enjoy the music of Morten Lauridsen – several Baltic names also come to mind – you will appreciate the gently swaying, four-in-a-bar lilt of this piece, as well as its surprising and slightly inconclusive ending. To refer to Lajos Bárdos’s Patkóéknál as a ‘little’ folk song arrangement – it lasts just short of four minutes –would ignore the extreme virtuosity required to sing it, not least given the Hungarian folk text. Kodály’s Esti Dal, often known by its English title, Evening Song, is performed here in a version for upper voices. Mastering the held notes in order to create the required tranquil atmosphere is something of a nightmare. Then listen to the skilful and rapid articulation of the Hungarian text in the following song, Túrót ëszik a cigány. Opstad, in the booklet, tells us that this song – in which an argument erupts as gypsies are eating cheese – is one of the choir’s favourites. It certainly sounds like it! More joy in singing, not to mention virtuoso display, will be found in the four tiny songs that make up each of the two sets by Bartók and Stravinsky, settings of folk texts in Hungarian and Russian respectively.

In conversation with Robert Craft, Stravinsky said ‘I had hoped my Mass would be used liturgically’. Quite how that might have been achieved is a mystery, given that ten wind players are required. He was concerned that the music should not obscure the text. You can hear every word in this performance, one which also respects the composer’s wish that the upper voices be assigned to children. Solos are, for the most part, expertly taken, and the soloists are all named in the booklet, which also provides the sung texts and translations. The instrumental accompaniment of this quirky masterpiece often seems to bear little relation to the vocal parts. Here, however, deftly delivered by a group of professionals, amongst them several teachers from the Toulouse Conservatoire, it is particularly well integrated into the overall texture. There is more beauty of sound in this performance than in most others I have heard.

The programme ends with Kodály’s Laudes Organi, whose Latin text can be read as a celebration of music, appropriate for the composer’s final completed work. The organ has important solo passages as well as providing the accompaniment. It is played here with great skill and discernment by Jeremiah Stephenson. The choral writing is refined and melodious, with beautifully clean textures. That for the organ, on the other hand, is massive, and if the work has a flaw it is that the disparity between the two elements creates a tension that is not completely resolved. Kodály’s music is always deeply satisfying, however, and the work provides this superb choir with a spectacular end to a remarkable programme.

William Hedley


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