During the last thirty years many of our most treasured choral works have been deliberately defamiliarized. Bach's St Matthew Passion, Handel's Messiah, and Mozart's Requiem are celebrated examples of works whose present form and performance standard would have been unrecognizable to audiences three decades ago. As the historical performance movement has crept inevitably towards the music of our own century, performers have begun to reinterpret the music of the nineteenth century in the light of current musicological thinking.
Before John Rutter's edition of the early 19805 Faur�'s Requiem was generally known as a concert piece for large choir and full orchestra. The original instrumentation was, however, quite different, in some performances using a choir of around thirty singers accompanied by four violas, four cellos, solo violin, and organ. The intimacy of the scoring was a deliberate reaction against Berlioz's Requiem which Faur� detested because of its use of massed forces to emphasize the horror of purgatorial suffering. The first performance of the Requiem took place liturgically at the Madeleine in Paris in 1888. There were at that stage only five movements; the Offertoire and Libera me (the two movements involving the Baritone soloist) were added later. In fact the Libera me had been completed as an independent work for voice and organ ten years before; the Offertoire was the only movement to postdate the first performance of the Requiem. The performance presented here uses the work's original instrumentation whilst including all seven movements of the finished Requiem. It is based upon the edition prepared by Denis Arnold in 1983 for Schola Cantorum of Oxford which was subsequently performed at St Louis-des- Invalides in Paris in July 1984.
Vierne was a generation younger than Faur�, but like Faur� had been assistant to the charismatic organist Charles-Marie Widor at the church of St Sulpice in Paris. Vierne was soon appointed organist of the great cathedral of Notre Dame where he died at the organ console, as had been his wish, in 1937. The Andantino was purportedly written in a single evening as a sight-reading test for students. Although the piece appears technically straightforward, the subtlety and precision required of a good performance make it easy to judge an unintelligent rendition harshly. Such academicism was despised by de S�verac who forsook the traditionalism of the Paris Conservatoire within months of his arrival there and transferred to the newly-formed Schola Cantorum. De S�verac was not attracted to musical life in Paris: he preferred the provincial life of southern France. For this reason de S�verac's music frequently possesses a pastoral charm and Tantum ergo shows the composer at his most simple and traditional. Like Faur� and Vierne, de S�verac's formidable ability as an improviser meant that much of his most inspirational music was never written down. While it is precisely this improvisational facility that makes the music of Faur�, Vierne, and de S�verac so immediately appealing, it is easy unjustly to resent the French tradition of organ improvisation for the loss of those musical gems that might otherwise have survived for posterity .
The appearance of Faur�'s Requiem in the 1880s, a decade during which the composer's most successful compositions were songs and piano pieces, can on I y be explained by the fine choral music which preceded it. The Messe basse represents Faur� at his most practical. Written in conjunction with the French composer and organist Andr� Messager (also at one time assistant to Widor at St Sulpice) during a holiday in Normandy in 1881, the Messe basse was composed for the modest forces of a local church. A setting of the motet O salutaris hostia and the Kyrie were Messager's contribution; the remaining movements of the Ordinary, without the Credo, were set by Faur�. When revising the score in 1906 Faur� adapted the violin and harmonium accompaniment for organ, at the same time excising the Gloria and replacing Messager's Kyrie with one of his own. The final version of the Messe basse is one of the few existing settings of the mass for female voices and organ. The youthful Cantique de Jean Racine dates from 1865 when Faur� was studying with Saint-Sa�ns at the Ecole Niedermeyer in Paris. The Cantique earned Faur� a premier prix in composition and is a testament to the young composer's melodic genius and to his penchant for rich textures.
This recording is an attempt to move Faur�'s liturgical music from the concert hall to the church. In particular, the reconstruction of nineteenth-century French ecclesiastical pronunciation and the restoration of Faur�'s preferred phrasing are just two of the most useful elements in the search for the composer's intentions. To those familiar with the more expansive versions of Faur�'s Requiem there will inevitably be unfamiliar textures in this performance. However, few of Faur�'s romantic gestures are lost in the chamber version, and moreover, the reserved translucence of the instrumentation emphasizes the fact that the Requiem -and indeed all the choral music recorded here - was originally designed for liturgical performance.
ReviewsSummerly's scholarly and excellently performed programme.... is very attractive - BBC Music Magazine