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Prières pour Notre Dame Marcel DUPRÉ (1886-1971)
15 Versets pour les Vêpres du commun des fêtes de la Sainte-Vierge, Op.18 [46:52] Lili BOULANGER (1893-1918)
Pie Jesu [4:42] Jeanne DEMESSIEUX (1921-1968)
Chorale Preludes on Gregorian Themes, Op.8: No.3 Attende Domine [4:04]; No.1 Rorate Caeli [2:40] Francis POULENC (1899-1963)
Litanies à la Vierge Noire [9:17]
Colin Walsh (organ)
Senior Girls of Romsey Abbey Choir/George Richford
rec. 2018, St Ouen, Rouen, France REGENT REGCD538 [67:27]
I find it increasingly difficult to tear myself away from this lovely recording in order to write my review of it. Months have passed during which it has almost welded itself to my CD player and, with a short break for Christmas, I doubt a day has gone by when the neighbours have not suffered from its sounds permeating the dividing walls. It is, truly, an arresting and captivating aural experience in which that rare combination of outstanding performance, sumptuous recording and gorgeous music coalesce into something very special.
George Richford writes at some length in the booklet about the almost insurmountable problems faced with making the recording of a girls’ choir from Hampshire in a cavernous French church where roosting pigeons, crowds of world-cup supporters and a decrepit organ all seemed to conspire against a happy outcome. Without his recollections I doubt whether anyone listening to this disc would have the foggiest idea all had not been sweetness and light for the recording sessions. It speaks volumes for Richford and his Romsey girls that they soar above such earth-bound impediments to produce singing of such ethereal beauty and poise. It also speaks volumes for the indomitable spirit of Regent’s Gary Cole that the recording has admitted neither pigeon nor soccer fanatic, and allows us just a fabulous, almost overwhelming richness of sound with impeccable balance and a vivid dynamic range. There is no need to comment on Colin Walsh’s unfailingly adept handling of the deteriorating but iconic Cavaillé-Coll of St Ouen; mere issues of bits falling off and notes failing to sound during recording sessions disturb him not a jot.
The main work here is one written for this very building in 1919 by Marcel Dupré. The Versets pour les Vêpres de la Vierge show their origins as improvisations which luxuriate in the sound and atmosphere of this great instrument, but were formalised (on a commission from the then Director of Rolls-Royce) into these 15 organ reflections on the plainchants associated with the worship of the Virgin Mary. Here those chants are cleanly yet atmospherically intoned by the Romsey Abbey girls – the legitimacy of having female voices singing these chants claimed by the fact that Romsey Abbey was founded as a Benedictine Order of Nuns who would have sung the daily offices for the first 500 years of its existence – and the organ reflections vividly and compellingly delivered by Colin Walsh. From both singers and organist, this is perceptive, intelligent and deeply moving music-making goes beyond the simple accuracy of detail to expose in a deeply moving way the spiritual essence of Dupré’s creation.
Poulenc’s musical devotions to the Virgin Mary are rather more acerbic and intimate than Dupré’s, but none the less sincere. Again, the Romsey Abbey girls’ choir impresses with its intense musicality and superlative technical delivery as well as by its wonderfully idiomatic French diction, but even moreso by its obvious empathy with this music; something which is magically captured in this excellent recording, in which the organ interjections are seamlessly woven into the choral texture.
Separating the Dupré and the Poulenc are works by two French women composers of the early 20th century. Lili Boulanger composed the short and intense Pie Jesu on her deathbed (it was dictated to her sister Nadia) and, in this version for organ and unison voices, it takes on a haunting air, with the girls’ voices sharply focused against the somewhat mistily atmospheric organ tone. Walsh’s solo performance of two of Jeanne Demessieux’s organ chorale preludes bring a touch of warmth and romantic depth to the disc, the music floating effortlessly through the rich acoustic murk of the building. He paces them ideally, so that the detail emerges clearly yet the sense of repose and breadth is maintained. Whatever state the St Ouen organ was in at the time of the recording, it sounds absolutely fantastic on this recording.