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Francis POULENC (1899-1963)
Stabat Mater, FP 148 [27:13]
Alfred DESENCLOS (1912-1971)
Messe de Requiem (organ version) [32:55]
Marion Tassou (soprano)
François Saint-Yves (organ)
Vlaams Radiokoor
Brussels Philharmonic/Hervé Niquet
rec. 2018, Flagey, Studio 4, Brussels (Poulenc); 2019, Jesuietkerk, Heverlee, Leuven, Belgium, (Desenclos)
Latin texts, English, Flemish and French translations included

Hervé Niquet and the Vlaams Radiokoor have been making a series of recordings of Requiems for the Evil Penguin label. I’ve already heard and been greatly impressed by their accounts of the Fauré Requiem (review) and, subsequently Brahms’ Ein deutsches Requiem, though the latter, whilst stimulating, had its controversial aspects (review). Initially, the series was intended to encompass five releases but, sadly, I gather that the project has been foreshortened to three.

One reason why Poulenc’s wonderful setting of the Stabat Mater is included may lie in the composer’s own description of the work as a “Requiem without despair”, a quotation referenced by Hervé Niquet in the booklet. It was only fairly recently that I reviewed a fine recording conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin. That performance was rather different to Niquet’s in that it was a live account, made in the Royal Festival Hall and using a large amateur choir, the excellent London Philharmonic Choir. Niquet offers a different experience. His is a studio recording with the performers a bit closer to the microphones. Furthermore, he employs a small professional choir. To darken the colourings, Poulenc included baritones in his choir as well as tenors and basses. Niquet’s choir numbers 42 singers (9/10/9/6/8); I don’t know the size of Nézet-Séguin’s choir but it must have been quite a bit larger. The London singers are first rate but the clarity of texture and flexibility of a small professional ensemble brings its own rewards in the Niquet performance.

On this new recording I like the grave, solemn approach to the opening chorus, ‘Stabat mater dolorosa’. It’s immediately apparent that the choral contribution will be of a very high order; the tone and unanimity is most impressive. In ‘O quam tristis’ I love the fragile beauty of Niquet’s choir in the unaccompanied passages. They and the excellent Brussels Philharmonic make ‘Quis est homo’ biting and urgent. In the following section, ‘Vidit suum’ we first encounter the soprano soloist, Marion Tassou. She makes a good impression, singing beseechingly and with pleasingly round tone. The choir’s a cappella singing in ‘Fac ut ardeat’ is beautifully calibrated, the tonal quality and the balance between the voices ideal. Choir and orchestra then combine for a very dramatic rendition of ‘Sancta Mater’. Marion Tassou again impresses with ardent singing in ‘Fac ut portem’ and the concluding two sections are projected with strong conviction. This is an extremely fine account of Poulenc’s eloquent score. The singing and playing is top-notch and Niquet is in evident command of and sympathy with the music. I shall continue to enjoy Nézet-Séguin’s rather bigger-scale performance but this Niquet version is as good as any I’ve heard.

I first encountered the Messe de Requiem of Alfred Desenclos in a recording by the French choir, Les Éléments (review) and later in an account by the Choir of Kings College, London and the late David Trendell, which I liked even more (review). Incidentally, the recording by Les Éléments had the benefit of having the organ part played by the composer’s son, Frédéric.

Desenclos composed this work in 1963. Like Maurice Duruflé, he originally scored his Requiem for chorus and orchestra and he subsequently made a version for accompaniment by organ only. All the recordings I’ve heard have utilised the organ version. The Evil Penguin booklet note is largely a conversation between the music critic Stefan Grondelaers and Hervé Niquet but towards the end of the section on the Desenclos work Niquet quotes at length from a telephone conversation he had with Frédéric Desenclos. I was interested to read Desenclos fils assert that when he came to make the recording with Les Éléments “I don’t believe that anyone had ever played the organ reduction before.” It’s not clear when the recording by Les Éléments was made but the disc has a copyright date of 1997, which may imply that the organ version had lain unperformed for some 30 years; I wonder how many performances the orchestral version has achieved. When one listens to any of the three recordings of this very beautiful work it’s surprising that so lovely and eloquent a work has, it seems, struggled to make its way in the world.

Writing in the booklet for his Delphian recording, David Trendell commented that the Desenclos Requiem is “unashamedly romantic”. He went on to say that the score “is influenced by Gregorian chant – though never actually using any particular chant melody – with rich harmonies based on added-note chords”. I must admit that I don’t find the Gregorian influence anywhere near as marked as is the case with Duruflé’s chant-suffused score but the contours of Desenclos’s melodies are often suggestive of plainchant. No soloists are required: the work is scored for SATB choir and, in this version, organ. Hervé Niquet deploys a smaller choir than he used for the Poulenc (7/6/6/6). The recording venue was a church in Leuven, Belgium whereas the rival recordings were set down in a French church, Notre-Dame-du-Taur, Toulouse (Les Éléments) and an English collegiate chapel, the Chapel of Exeter College Oxford (Delphian). I’ve not been able to find out anything about the organ in the Leuven church but to my ears it sounds the most French of the three. That’s particularly evident when François Saint-Yves conjures a reedy sound from the instrument, for example at the start of the second movement, ‘Offertoire’ (‘Domine Jesu Christe’).

Desenclos speaks with his own voice but his setting frequently put me in mind of Duruflé. That is to do with the harmonic language, the mellifluous choral writing and the general ambience of the piece. Like Duruflé, Desenclos writes in a reflective, consolatory vein and though his music doesn’t eschew climaxes these are rarely dramatic in nature. Frédéric Desenclos quotes in the booklet from a programme note written by his father which he remembers from a performance he attended as a child. Alfred Desenclos informed his audience that “this Requiem was written in the tradition of, and with a deep respect for the liturgical tradition and each theatrical effect has been resolutely avoided.”

In keeping with this sentiment there is no setting of the ‘Dies irae’. The most dramatic words that Desenclos set come in the penultimate of the seven movements, ‘’Libera me, Domine’. In this section we hear the most highly charged music in the work, yet even here beauty of utterance is not sacrificed. Desenclos does spring one or two surprises. Unlike many composers before and since, he does not set the ‘Pie Jesu’ for a solo voice; instead the full choir is involved and the music is not all contemplation; there are moments where the mood, if not the tempo, is urgent.

I mentioned that the organ sounds quite French; so, do the singers. In the booklet, Niquet discusses at some length the steps he took to obtain a Parisian sound from his singers. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the ‘Agnus Dei’ where first the tenors and, a little later, the altos sing with a very French timbre.

This is a marvellous performance of a beautiful work. The Desenclos Requiem deserves to be much better known and a recording of this quality can only help its cause. The previous two recordings are estimable – though the Delphian version conducted by David Trendell is clearly by a British choir (and none the worse for that). However, this new version by Hervé Niquet and the superb Vlaams Radiokoor now occupies pole position. It helps that the performance includes a most idiomatic contribution by organist François Saint-Yves. The engineering of this recording is as good as Paul Baxter’s for Delphian.

The disc is beautifully presented by Evil Penguin. It’s housed in a hardback-book cover which also contains the extensive booklet. This includes the texts and a very full set of notes, all in four languages, as well as a nice selection of black-and-white photographs

So, there we have it. A highly desirable disc which offers magnificent performances of two wonderful and very different French choral works. I’m very sorry that Hervé Niquet’s Requiem recording project has not been as extensive as initially envisaged. Perhaps he’ll return to it one day; I do hope so. However, the project has certainly ended in impressive fashion.

John Quinn

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