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Gabriel FAURÉ (1845-1924)
Messe Basse [9:36]
Krzysztof GRZESZCZAK (b.1965)
Tongeren Mass [22:23]
James WHITBOURN (b.1963)
Son of God Mass [25:22]
Marta Boberska, Magdalena Szymańska (sopranos)
Pawel Gusnar (soprano saxophone)
Krzysztof Urbaniak (organ)
Łódź Philharmonic Choir/Dawid Ber
rec. 2019, Arthur Rubinstein Philharmonic Concert Hall, Łódź, Poland
DUX 1613 [57:01]

The temptation is to describe everything on this recording as innocuous. And, in that it is quite easy to listen through these works without feeling anything more impassioned than a gentle, reasonably comfortable sense of calm, that word seems singularly apt. But behind the cloak of a superficial uniformity lurk three very different and distinct works which, in their various ways, look on the familiar text of the Mass in very individualistic ways.

Much of that sense of superficial innocuity can be put down to the performances by the Łódź Philharmonic Choir, which produces a kind of innocent, vaguely childlike sound in which director Dawid Ber makes no attempt to blend into a homogenous whole but happily allows the tone to be determined by individual voices. For those brought up on the polished, smoothly-honed sound of an English choir, it takes a bit of getting used to, but I must say I feel it suits this music quite well. I would wish the organ was less recessed – it seems so distant and bland that at times I wonder whether it might not be some kind of digital thing – but Krzysztof Urbaniak is clearly a sensitive accompanist who has no intention of making his presence felt beyond supporting the voices. But the two soprano soloists (Marta Boberska in the Fauré and Magdalena Szymańska in the Grzeszczak) are well balanced against the choir, and Pawel Gusnar’s fluid soprano saxophone (in the Whitbourn) emerges effortlessly without ever sounding too astringent. These somewhat one-dimensional performances are never going to set the world on fire, and for the most part Ber avoids any interpretative interjections, but they do present these three works in a clear, no-nonsense manner which is, in its own way, quite endearing.

The Fauré Messe Basse should need no introduction, which is just as well since the booklet notes have an English translation which is as good as useless. Written for female voices and organ, it was part of a joint venture by Fauré and his pupil André Messager, to provide a mass setting for the tiny church choir. There are many more polished and insightful performances on record than this (if you can get hold of the St John’s College Cambridge one under George Guest – released on Argo in 1971 and more recently found on a double CD Decca set – that’s well worth hearing), but Ber and the women of the Łódź Philharmonic Choir certainly evoke the kind of small-scale intimacy which was at the root of the work. Marta Boberska projects a charming fragility in her solos.

New to me is the Polish composer Krzysztof Grzeszczak and his four movement Tongeren Mass. Unlike the Fauré, which dispenses with the two big movements (Gloria and Creed), Grzeszczak’s work includes a lengthy setting of the Gloria, and merges the Sanctus and Benedictus into a single movement. With its celebratory zeal – greatly enhanced by the glittering use of the organ’s Cymbelstern for the opening to the Gloria – the music is often quite exhilarating and effective (despite a very obvious quote from Messiaen’s O Sacrum convivium in the Gloria); I particularly like the expansive opening to the Sanctus with its sense of growth towards a buoyant and glittering “hosanna in excelsis”. An unusual feature of Grzeszczak’s work is the extended and dramatic setting of the Agnus Dei, which, while the text demands a peaceful end, nevertheless ends with considerable dramatic impact. The soprano soloist in the Tongeren Mass is Magdalena Szymańska, whose rather more operatic voice suits this rather more extrovert music.

British composer James Whitbourn expands his setting of the Mass to nine movements, interspersing the same four movements as set by Grzeszczak with reflections featuring the soprano saxophone of Pawel Gusnar. These are not purely instrumental interludes, the first four of which (titled, respectively, “Introit”, “Kyrie meditation”, “Lava me” and “Pax Domini”) include both wordless chorus and isolated words and phrases from the preceding movements, while the final one is a setting of the word “Amen”. Neither are they mere interludes, but often make quite a substantial contribution to the work – “Lava me”, standing at over five minutes, is by far and away the longest individual movement in the whole work. Prejudice must now be acknowledged: I loathe the sound of the soprano saxophone with its hideous, irritating whine. Yet Whitbourn’s use of the instrument here – and, it must be said, Gusnar’s highly effective command of it – is a really inspired, adding an almost Arabian exoticism to the otherwise rather uneventful choral and organ writing.

These may not be the ideal performances of any of these Mass settings, and you do have to make the effort to listen intently to them to appreciate the considerable emotional, spiritual and musical scope of these three works. But that effort is well worth it, for these turn out to be sensitive and often quite perceptive performances of music of considerable interest.

Marc Rochester

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