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Gabriel FAURÉ (1845-1924)
Requiem, Op. 48 (1890) [34:21]
Maurice DURUFLE (1902-1986)
Requiem, Op. 9 (1947) [41:12]
Julie Boulianne (mezzo-soprano); Philippe Sly (baritone); Elinor Frey (cello)
Jonathan Oldengarm (organ)
Les Petits Chanteurs du Mont-Royal, Chœur de l’Eglise St. Andrew et St. Paul, Montreal/Jean-Sébastien Oldengarm
rec. 2018, Church of St. Andrew and St. Paul, Montreal, Canada

The English-speaking amateur choral singer who has never taken part in a performance of Fauré’s Requiem is a rare bird indeed. The Duruflé, on the other hand, though increasing in popularity, is less widely heard. Each work has a complicated history. The Fauré evolved slowly, beginning with a performance of just five movements at the church of the Madeleine in Paris in 1888, its accompaniment devoid of violins but for a solo in the Sanctus. A version for full orchestra was published in 1890, though there is some doubt as to whether Fauré himself prepared it, and in any case it is very strange, with much doubling and with many of the wind instruments having little to do. Many performances, including the present one, are given with organ alone, and this can work very well, though one rather misses the warmth that the lower strings bring to the texture. Duruflé’s Requiem exists in three versions. The first, for full orchestra, was followed by a second, prepared by the composer, for organ alone, and a third, also by the composer, for organ and strings, with optional parts for harp, three trumpets and timpani. The music itself is more varied in mood and texture than Fauré’s, and the organ parts are meticulously annotated. Where a commercial recording is concerned, it is perhaps easier to justify the Duruflé with organ alone than the Fauré.

To my mind, many performances of the Duruflé, particularly those from the UK that follow the cathedral tradition, tend to politeness and restraint. Duruflé had a profound interest in Gregorian chant throughout his life and many of his works, including the Requiem, are based on Gregorian themes. But that is not a reason to downplay the passion and fervour of the work in favour of an over-reverent approach. This excellent performance from Montreal mostly avoids this pitfall, though the singers are occasionally hampered by the conductor’s slow tempi. The opening of the work, for example, goes substantially slower than the composer’s indicated crotchet=60, making it difficult to respect Duruflé’s frequent demands for flexibility of metre. One of the remarkable features of the work is how the composer manages to achieve an atmosphere of peace and stillness when the vocal parts are projected over a constantly moving, semiquaver-charged accompaniment. Some of this effect is lost here, notably in the sublime ‘Agnus Dei’. The conductor again chooses a slower tempo than that indicated for the unison reprise of the Libera me theme. This is more damaging as it quite takes away the urgency of the prayer that I believe Duruflé wanted to communicate. Overall, however, there is muscle as well as religious devotion in this performance, which means more than simply letting rip in the two more forceful passages, ‘Libera eas’ and ‘Dies irae’, both of which are splendidly done.

Organists’ registration choices divide people, but Jonathan Oldengarm not only plays superbly but his choice of stops seems ideal. Only in one place did I not care for what I was hearing, a reaction so personal that I see no point in indicating where it was. There seems relatively little difference in vocal colour between the sopranos and the altos of the choir, and, as a choral conductor myself, I’m jealous of Vallée’s tenor section! They all sing magnificently throughout. Les Petits Chanteurs du Mont-Royal – a children’s choir: seven singers are named in the booklet – sing nine bars in the Libera me, and, according to the notes – though of this I am less sure – the passage beginning ‘Sed signifer’ in the Domine Jesu Christe.

Julie Boulianne gives us a fine ‘Pie Jesu’, though I find her vibrato slightly troubling in the louder passages. This performance takes advantage of the composer’s suggestion to include a cello, sensitively played here by Elinor Frey. Both are recorded rather closely. The real discovery for this listener was the baritone, Philippe Sly. I have for many years been in awe of Peter Mattei in this same work (BIS CD602), but here is a singer to rival him. Sly’s muscular and powerfully expressive singing goes to the very heart of what this music is about.

Jean-Sébastien Vallée, having successfully avoided easy solutions in the Duruflé, seems to try the same line in the Fauré. It works less well, I think. Though there are many different ways to look at any given work, there is a fragility and restraint to Fauré’s Requiem, both of which only occasionally emerge here. Nor does there seem to be much in the way of affection, with little attempt to deliver much more than the notes. The opening is heavy and portentous, the extra-slow tempo contributes to that, and it is very successful. The conductor keeps the following ‘Offertoire’ moving, no bad thing in itself, but it somewhat robs the music of its intimacy. The ‘Sanctus’ should be serene, but here, at a tempo slightly faster than Fauré’s marking, sounds rather nervous. As to the famous ‘Pie Jesu’, it is sung here by the children’s choir, a perfectly justifiable decision when you remember that the piece was conceived with a boy’s treble voice in mind, in line with the all-male singers of the Madeleine. But did it really have to pass so quickly – crotchet=60 instead of the marked 44? It seems a real pity and an opportunity lost. The ‘Agnus Dei’ goes well, as does the opening of the ‘Libera me’, but the conductor launches the ‘Dies irae’ at a real gallop – the score asks for only a slight increase in pulse – which comes as an unpleasant shock.

William Hedley

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