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Messe Da Pacem
Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937) arr. Rupert GOUGH (b 1971)
Requiem æternam [7:07]
Pierre VILLETTE (1926-1998)
Messe Da Pacem, Op 38 (1970) [35:38]
Élévation, Op 22 (1955) [3:45]
Hymne à la Vierge, Op 24 (1955) [4:41]
Salutation angélique, Op 20 (1954) [3:05]
Yves CASTAGNET (b 1964)
Messe Brève (1990-91) [11:39]
Veni Sancte Spiritus (2013) [9:32]
Sarah Fox (soprano)
Andrew Dewar, Liam Condon (organ)
The Choir of Royal Holloway/Rupert Gough (organ)
rec. June & July, 2019, Église Notre-Dame d’Auteuil, Paris
Texts and English translations included
AD FONTES AF004 [75:27]

Apart from the lovely little motet Hymne à la Vierge, the music of Pierre Villette is too little known, though he has not been without his champions, including some musicians in the UK. The late Donald Hunt, Organist and Master of the Choristers at Worcester Cathedral (1976-96) was an advocate for Villette, programming two of his works, including the first performance of his substantial Messe en Français, Op 44, at the 1981Worcester Three Choirs Festival. In gratitude for the support he received in Worcester, Villette dedicated his Attende, Domine, Op. 45 (1983) to Hunt and the choir of Worcester Cathedral. Another British champion has been Stephen Layton, who made a splendid CD of short pieces by Villette in 2005 (review). Now Rupert Gough has taken up Villette’s cause. Incidentally, there’s only a small overlap between Gough’s selection of pieces and those included on the Layton disc.

Introducing the music in a splendid booklet note, Rupert Gough relates the story of Villette’s life, which was not without its difficulties. Born near Rouen, he was the son of a man who earned his living running a woodworking enterprise but who was also a more-than capable amateur musician. Young Pierre was a chorister at Rouen Cathedral and later studied with Duruflé. The death of his father in 1948 obliged Pierre to forsake a musical career and return home to run the family business. However, ill health intervened – he had to have a lung removed – and for the sake of his health he began to spend lengthy periods in the Alps. Here, he became the organist of the church of Notre-Dame de Toute Grâce, a modern church in Plateau d’Assy in the Haute-Savoie region. Between 1957 and 1987, when he retired, Villette served consecutively as director of the conservatoires first at Besançon and then at Aix-en-Provence. In declining health, he continued to compose small-scale works during his retirement.

The major focus on this disc is the Messe Da Pacem. In its original form the work is scored for soprano solo, SATB chorus (with divisions), orchestra and either one or two organs. In addition, there’s an important part in the Sanctus/Benedictus for a ‘Céleste’, an SATB echo choir, placed at a distance and singing, I think, in up to eight parts. I don’t know if the Mass has been recorded in this version but on this CD, we hear it in a reduction which Rupert Gough has made in which the accompaniment is provided by a single organ. Since I’ve never had the chance to hear the original score I can’t comment as to how Gough’s version compares with the original. What I can say is that the reduction sounds totally convincing, especially as played so thrillingly by Andrew Dewar on the Cavaillé-Coll organ of Église Notre-Dame d’Auteuil. Ad Fontes provide de-luxe documentation, including a short essay in which Rupert Gough tells the fascinating story of the instrument. This is not the place to detail the history of the organ. Suffice to say that it dates from 1855 and has been renovated and expanded several times, the most recent restoration occurring in 2018. It sounds magnificent here and it’s played superbly by Andrew Dewar.

Messe Da Pacem was composed between 1967 and 1970 but Rupert Gough tells us that the Kyrie and Agnus Dei include material sketched by Villette as far back as 1951. The Kyrie begins with an extended organ introduction, founded on a melody which has importance elsewhere in the work. The mood is pacific and this is picked up by the choir. The music is distinguished by long, flowing melodic lines, fine counterpoint in places, and harmonic language which is consistently rich. The independent organ part makes a significant contribution. Villette does not set the Credo but he more than compensates for this with a substantial Gloria. This begins with an energetic, fanfare-like organ introduction which leads the listener to expect a vigorous celebratory setting of the text. Such is not the case, however; much of the Gloria features prayerful, intense music at a moderate tempo. There’s a wide-ranging, expressive soprano solo at ‘Gratias agimus tibi’; Sarah Fox’s voice suits this music really well and she sings with great commitment. When the choir sings again their music is increasingly complex and richly-textured. Rupert Gough comments that in the Mass the harmonic language in general not only shows the influence of Duruflé and Debussy but also evidences Villette’s lifelong love of jazz; we hear those influences consistently both in the choral writing and in the strikingly inventive organ accompaniment. The soloist is involved again at ‘Quoniam tu solus sanctus’ and from here on the music starts to gather pace and becomes more ecstatic. The opening organ fanfare reappears and introduces a choral fugue at ‘Cum Spiritu Sancto’. Here the music is finally let off the leash in terms of pacing. The last couple of minutes are spectacular; Villette concludes his setting of the Gloria as an exultant paean of praise. This Gloria, wide-ranging in its expression, is a fantastic movement.

Initially, the Sanctus strides forward purposefully, but it’s not long before Villette adopts an intensely chromatic and reflective approach to the text. Introduced by a potent passage for the organ, the ‘Pleni sunt’ is majestic. The outstanding episode, for me, is the ‘Hosanna’. The choir’s music is radiant and punctuated by energetic organ flourishes. What really steals the show, though, are the contributions of the ‘Céleste’ echo choir. I imagine that the singers were placed at the opposite end of the church from the main chorus and the effect is magical. The Benedictus sees the return of the soprano soloist, her line gorgeously cushioned by the choir. The mood is tranquil and the harmonies intensely chromatic; in these pages, I really relished Sarah Fox’s rich tone. Then we get a second opportunity to revel in Villette’s setting of the ‘Hosanna’. The Agnus Dei is a thoughtful movement which, yet again, contains highly expressive, harmonically rich writing for the choir. The music benefits from long melodic lines in a similar fashion to the Kyrie.

Messe Da Pacem is a major discovery. The music is fabulously French and radiates sincerity; it’s also highly accomplished. I would imagine that the choral writing is extremely challenging but the Choir of Royal Holloway deliver it with great assurance and commitment. The organ part demands virtuosity and that’s precisely what we get from Andrew Dewar who is sensitive in the quieter stretches while conjuring commanding, imposing sounds from the organ on the several occasions when the instrument is required to sound forth mightily. The newly restored Cavaillé-Coll organ is tailor made for this assignment.

The three shorter works by Villette were composed around the same time as each other; all date from his time as organist of Notre-Dame de Toute Grâce in Plateau d’Assy. Indeed, I learned from the notes that Villette’s widow, Josette revealed that the original title of Hymne à la Vierge was Prière à Notre-Dame de Toute Grâce. It’s quite understandable that this little gem should have become the composer’s best-known work. Here, it receives a beautiful performance. Incidentally, Rupert Gough opts to have the second verse sung by sopranos with the other parts humming underneath, a presentation which I’ve come to like very much. Gough himself takes to the organ loft for the other two Villette pieces. He plays the composer’s only work for solo organ, Élévation. The music is very slow-moving and restrained; Gough makes the organ sound extremely atmospheric and the music fits the Cavaillé-Coll instrument like a glove. I think that Gough’s comparison with Messiaen’s Le banquet celeste is a point well made. Subsequently, Villette adapted this piece as one of his Trois pièces de cordes (1965), which I think was heard in the UK, along with the Messe en Français, at the 1981 Three Choirs Festival. How often has either piece been performed since, I wonder? Gough also plays the organ accompaniment for Salutation angélique. This sets the prayer ‘Hail Mary’ in French. It’s usually heard, as on the aforementioned Stephen Layton disc, sung by unison upper voices. However, it was originally conceived for soprano and organ and when you have Sarah Fox, an alumna of Royal Holloway, on hand there’s no better reason to revert to the original conception. Ms Fox sings the piece with great expression and with the warmth of tone that the music requires.

Two other composers are featured on the programme, only one of whom will be known to most listeners. Requiem æternam is an arrangement for choir and organ by Rupert Gough of Ravel’s celebrated Pavane pour une infante défunte. He’s used the words of the Introit from the Mass for the Dead. The arrangement has been done skilfully and the words fit the music well. However, as with choral arrangements of some other orchestral pieces that I’ve heard, I’m not wholly convinced.

Yves Castagnet’s music was entirely unknown to me. Castagnet has served as Organist of the Choir Organ at the cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris since 1988 and until the devastating fire of 2019 his duties included playing for daily services in the cathedral. Let’s hope he can resume that work before too long. His Messe Brève is his first composition and its brevity is deliberate in order for the music to fit comfortably within the celebration of the Mass. The writing is succinct but I was left with the impression that even after the shortest movements – the Kyrie, for example, plays for less than two minutes – Castagnet had said all that he needed to do; the music is highly organised. The Gloria, which is the longest movement, makes great use of dynamic contrasts and though the setting is succinct it has moments of drama; indeed, the soft conclusion is something of a surprise. The Agnus Dei is constructed round long melodic phrases and is intense without unnecessarily raising its voice. The setting of Veni Creator Spiritus, the Sequence for Pentecost, is a much more recent piece. It’s based, Rupert Gough tells us, on the plainchant melody associated with that Sequence. However, that melody is not readily apparent; it mainly crops up in the organ part and only spills over into the choral writing at the very end. I think the music is an interesting and thoughtful response to the words of the Sequence.

I found this a thrilling and rewarding disc. What I think is the debut on disc of Villette’s Messe Da Pacem is a significant addition to the catalogue and I’m glad too that the opportunity has been taken to commit music by Yves Castagnet to CD. The performances are simply superb. Rupert Gough has made the Choir of Royal Holloway into one of the UK’s premier choirs and here once again they show their qualities. The organ playing of Andrew Dewar and Liam Condon (in the Castagnet Mass) is terrific – Dewar’s contribution to Messe Da Pacem is simply magnificent. The decision to go to Paris and record in the Église Notre-Dame d’Auteuil probably increased the costs of the overall project but it’s been entirely vindicated; not only does the sound of the Cavaillé-Coll organ add real authenticity to the performances but the acoustic of the church seems to be wonderfully resonant and sympathetic. The recordings were engineered by David Rowell and produced by Adrian Hunter. They’ve done a fantastic job. The sound of the organ is absolutely thrilling while the choir has been recorded with great clarity and fidelity. The balance between choir and organ is ideal.

This is my first encounter with a CD on the Ad Fontes label and I’m seriously impressed with the quality of their presentation. The disc and documentation are housed in a sturdy hardback book-style cover. Within that is an exemplary 65-page booklet. This is copiously illustrated with excellent photographs. It includes texts and translation, the usual biographies, a full organ specification coupled with an excellent essay about the instrument. Best of all is the detailed and informative essay about Villette and the music by Rupert Gough. His writing has particular authority, not just on account of his evident commitment to the music but also because he appears to have benefitted from the collaboration of Pierre Villette’s two children.

This is a distinguished release in every respect and lovers of French choral music should hasten to hear it.

John Quinn

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