GMCD 7239 – La France au Calvaire by Marcle Dupré and Music by Langlais, Alain, Messiaen
Vasari Singers, Jeremy Backhouse – Conductor, Jeremy Filsell – organ
Fono Forum 04/03
Krieg und Zerstörung
Hauptwerk dieser spannenden CD mit geistlicher französischer Vokalmusik des 20. Jahrhunderts ist das einstündige Oratorium „La France au CalvaireQ (1952/53) von Marcel Dupré. Das Libretto reflektiert die Zerstörung Ruens im Zweiten Weltkrieg durch eine Folge allegorischer Szenen mit Heiligenfiguren. Duprés Komposition variiert zwischen erregter Unisono-Dramatik und meditativen Passagen und bedient sich dabei einer expressiven, stark chromatische angereicherten Harmonik. Der intonationssichere Chor agiert mit großer dynamischer und artikulatorischer Sorgfalt, klingt aber für den französischen Tonfall der Werke mitunter eine Spur zu direkt
MusicWeb Saturday March 08 03
Guild already have to their credit a much-lauded intégrale of the organ music of Marcel Dupré, played by Jeremy Filsell. In February 2001, presumably as an addendum to that cycle, they recorded the British choir, the Vasari Singers, accompanied by Filsell, in a superb recital of choral music by Dupré [GMCD 7220], which included the final movement of La France au Calvaire. Just about a year later the team returned to the same venue, Douai Abbey, and set down the world première recording of that work in its entirety. That recording is issued here.
La France au Calvaire is a strange work. It was prompted by Dupré’s despair at the wartime devastation of his beloved home city of Rouen. (Dupré had previously penned another substantial organ and choral work in response to the carnage of the First World War. This was De Profundis, Op. 18 (1917), a dark and powerful setting of Psalm 130 which, by happy coincidence, was included on the Vasari’s earlier Dupré disc, mentioned above.) For La France au Calvaire Dupré turned to a fellow native of Rouen, the poet, René Herval, who fashioned for him a somewhat hyperbolic libretto which the (excellent) notes rightly describe as “curious”. The piece was completed in time for the joint celebrations in 1956 of the post-war restoration of Rouen Cathedral and of the five hundredth anniversary of the posthumous pardoning of Joan of Arc.
The work is in eight movements, comprising a prologue, a series of six tableaux and a finale. In the Prologue the allegorical figure of France (here sung by Catherine Denley) kneels at the feet of the crucified Christ, pleading with him to pardon her countrymen’s sins down the ages. Each of the following tableaux depicts a saint from French history, including Joan of Arc, St. Denis (the patron saint of France), St. Louis IX, St. Vincent de Paul, St. Clothilde and St. Theresa. In the finale we return to Calvary where, amid prayers and praising from the chorus (the people of France), divine pardon is duly bestowed.
It’s a moving, deeply felt work, featuring some atmospheric and very effective writing for the chorus. The whole thing is underpinned by a prodigiously varied and, I’m sure, fiendishly difficult organ part, conceived on a massive scale. This is majestically and authoritatively realised by Jeremy Filsell. The organ writing is extremely imaginative (as are Filsell’s registrations) and the part is colourful though not in an ostentatious way. Indeed, the piece may strike many listeners as more austere than might have been the case had not Dupré eschewed the use of an orchestra. Austere it may be; forbidding, no. There is a notably dramatic impulse behind much of the music and many of the reflective passages in which the piece abounds are lovely indeed.
The four vocal soloists all have important parts and all acquit themselves very well indeed. One point of interest is that in the performance of the finale included on the earlier CD Helen Neeves took the part of ‘La France’ (and very well too) whereas here the role is allotted to Catherine Denley, presumably as specified by the composer (I haven’t seen a score). I think that the additional richness of a contralto voice adds a certain something to these passages. In fact I enjoyed Miss Denley’s singing throughout the disc. She sings eloquently and with consistently beautiful tone. Helen Neeves too makes some lovely, affecting sounds. Of all the soloists it is tenor, Matthew Beale, who sounds the most French. The plangent, slightly nasal tone he deploys here is absolutely right for this music. If I seem to rate baritone Colin Campbell less highly than his peers it’s because I found his voice contained too much vibrato for my taste though it cannot be denied that he is in command of his roles as St. Denis and the Voice of Christ..
Jeremy Filsell gives a stupendous account of the organ part but he is always careful not to intrude at the expense of the singers. The conducting of Jeremy Backhouse is spirited and responsive to the many moods of the piece. Clearly he has prepared his singers with scrupulous thoroughness.
I have to admit that to some extent I’m still coming to terms with this work, which I had not encountered before. However, my listening for this review has already persuaded me that La France au Calvaire is a very significant discovery. I fear that the work is unlikely to make significant headway outside France so its availability on CD is all the more welcome. (I must say I’m somewhat surprised that no French choir has recorded it.) I cannot imagine that it will ever receive more committed or expert advocacy than it does from the performers assembled here. Guild accord them a superb recording, which is beautifully balanced (the organ making its presence properly felt without ever overwhelming the singers) and very detailed.
The notes by David Gammie and Jeremy Backhouse are all that could be desired. They comprise an edited version of Gammie’s excellent biographical introduction from the earlier CD while I suspect it is Backhouse who contributes the concise but extremely pertinent notes introducing each movement of the Dupré work and also each of the three smaller scale pieces. Full French texts and English translations are provided and, unlike some labels, all the printing is crystal clear.
To complete the programme the Vasari Singers perform motets by three pupils of Dupré, two of which, those by Alain and Langlais, were new to me and, indeed, receive their first recordings here. Langlais’ Festival Alleluia is a setting of just one word (‘Alleluia’) like the marvellous setting by the American, Randall Thompson. Unlike Thompson, Langlais accompanies his choir (a virtuoso organ part, effortlessly despatched by Jeremy Filsell). His setting contrasts rhythmically exuberant passages of jubilation with passages in which joy is expressed with more quiet serenity. It’s an interesting piece but I must say I think it would have been more effective at half the length. Filsell’s accompaniment is superb but I wonder what the piece sounds like with the addition of the optional trumpets and timpani?
The Alain work is simple and has a grave beauty which reminded me of the choral music of Pierre Villette. According to the notes, it’s an “adaptation” by his sister, the distinguished organist Marie-Claire Alain. I’m not entirely clear if this means she has arranged an organ piece for à capella choir. It matters not; the result is a lovely little devotional work, serenely sung here. Messiaen’s luxuriant, ecstatic O Sacrum Convivium is a wonderfully rapt piece which I first sang when still at school. I’ve loved it ever since. This is one of the most sensuous pieces of religious music I know and whenever I hear it I regret that it’s Messiaen’s sole work of this kind. It is splendidly sung here though I could have wished for a touch more mystery; perhaps the microphone placings were just a little too close?
All in all, this is a splendid disc. Both Guild and the performers are to be congratulated on their enterprise in making it. I have been very glad to acquaint myself with this major work by Dupré and I hope many other collectors will take advantage of this release to hear it.
Very strongly recommended.
Editor’s Choice on Cover CD
The first recording of Marcel Dupré’s La France au Calvaire of 1952-53 finds the Vasari Singers on top form. Dupré wrote the work to commemorate the restoration of Rouen Cathedral after wartime devastation as well as for the 500th anniversary of the pardon of St Joan of Arc in 1956. Based on a libretto by the Rouen-native René Herval, the work envisages the figure of ‘La France’ kneeling before the crucified Christ interceding on behalf of France using six French saints as witnesses.
An extraordinarily powerful work, born out of fury, superbly performed
Although the Vasari Singers have already given us a taste of La France au Calvaire (10/01)this is the first time the complete work has appeared on disc. And an stonishing work it is, too, setting, to quote the booklet note, ‘a curious libretto’ by René Herval who, like Dupré, was a native of Rouen. Appalled by the devastation wrought on his native city during the Second World War, Dupré vents all his anger and passion into this 65-minute oratorio, its movements dedicated to six French saints and framed by a Prologue and Final.
Principally known for his organ music, it might seem strange to question Dupré’s use of the organ here as the sole means of instrumental accompaniment. But despite Jeremy Filsell’s stunning virtuosity and brilliant handling of the not-always-perfectly-in-tune Douai Abbey organ, I can’t help feeling that the score cries out for an orchestra.
No such reservations about the performance: in a word, stunning. The bleak ugliness of Christ nailed to the cross is compellingly portrayed by Matthew Beale, Catherine Denley makes an arresting France appealing for forgiveness for her misguided people, Colin Campbell fulfils the dual roles of St Denis and the voice of Christ with suitable gravitas and authority, and Helen Neeves is a beautifully innocent St Clotilde (magically set against a decidedly Messiaenic organ backdrop).
As for Jeremy Backhouse and his superb Vasari Singers, they excel even by their own high standards. The men evoke suitably violent Barbarians as they call for Christ’s death, the women provide a moment of absolute wonder as they sing to St Theresa, and the entire choir moves from the passionate followers of Joan of Are, through the gloriously triumphant (‘Le Christ est encore’), and the miserably wretched (‘J’ai faim’) to the luminously prayerful (‘Saints, martyrs, phalanges’).
The three motets which share the disc seem in comparison a trifle disappointing: Langlais’ Festival Alleluia, despite opening with great verve and spirit, overstays its welcome by a good six minutes; Alain’s gentle O Salutaris is really little more than an exercise in Bach-style chorale writing; and, for all its stature as a 20th-centwy choral classic, Messiaen’s O sacrum convivium here lacks a sense of mystery. But that disappointment is only because the motets precede a work of extra-ordinary emotional impact and a performance of exceptional power.
MUSIC WEB MONDAY 09. SEPTEMBER 02
The main work obviously on this disc is the Oratorio by Marcel Dupré “La France au Calvaire” (France at Calvary), inspired by the destruction suffered in Rouen during the Second World War (Dupré was born in Rouen); he completed this in time for the joint celebration of the restoration of Rouen Cathedral and the 500th anniversary of the official pardon of Joan of Arc in 1956. The libretto, written by another native of Rouen, the poet René Herval, is curious; it begins with the allegorical figure of La France kneeling at the foot of the Cross, begging the dying Christ to forgive her countrymen their sins. In support of her plea, the six succeeding movements present a procession of French saints through the ages. The Finale returns to Calvary where La France repeats her prayer of the Prologue and is answered by Christ on the Cross. Dupré did not consider himself a composer, and was first and primarily an organist, and obviously a very good one – he performed the complete organ works of J.S.Bach from memory in the early 1920s. He came from a musical family, and studied at the Paris Conservatoire under Widor. In style he is removed from the other French modernists, and listening to this work, the impression I gained was one of César Franck transported into the 20th century. The work has four soloists, chorus and organ, the latter part being a tour de force. The soloists are very good, with clear diction and cope well with demanding roles; the only slight criticism I have is of the baritone, Colin Campbell, who has a marked vibrato, which is just short of being intrusive. Catherine Denley is of course well known and gives her usual sound firm performance, and both the tenor and soprano leads are held well, both with clear fresh voiced soloists. Jeremy Filsell at the organ has the job of acting as anchor man and continuo, and performs this unobtrusively and competently; the organ volume is well adjusted and does not drown either the soloists or the choir. I am not an organist and thus cannot comment on the registrations used, but certainly the effect is very satisfying.
The Vasari Singers are a very competent and justly respected choir; they were formed in 1980 by a group of friends from the London Symphony Chorus, and named themselves after Giorgio Vasari (1511-1575) a musician, architect, artist and critic in sixteenth century Italy. They thus committed themselves to performing Italian polyphony, but as their numbers increased their repertoire widened, and they now embrace a wide spectrum of music. For this programme, from their photograph, they number 31 and give an excellent account of themselves. They are virtually semi-professional these days, and their expertise is reflected in the way in which they cope with Dupré’s score. I cannot say that I enjoyed the work, rather that it was a most interesting experience to hear this unusual oratorio; I would not want to listen to it again, but I’m grateful for the chance of experiencing it. This, together with the other items on the disc are likely to prove of interest to a student of modern French choral music. In fact, apart from the Messiaen, none of these works is otherwise represented in the current catalogue.
Jean Langlais studied at the Institute for Blind Youth, and later entered the Paris Conservatoire, studying organ under Dupré. He later took up an appointment at the Sainte Clotilde church in Paris (previously held by César Franck and Tournemire). The motet Festival Alleluia is scored for choir and organ, with optional timpani and trumpets. It consists of contrasting sections singing for almost 7 minutes to the one word “Alleluia”. I found the whole work tedious because of this, although the singers and organ performed more than adequately. I am probably missing some finer points, but it was not for me.
Jéhan Alain was killed in action in 1940, aged only 29; O Salutaris is a short motet beautifully crafted and sung. It has been adapted by his sister, the renowned organist Marie-Claire Alain. It is a very peaceful, easily accessible piece, again well performed, and which I enjoyed most of any works on this disc.
Olivier Messiaen’s O sacrum convivium is scored for a capella choir, or soprano and organ; the choral version is performed here, and again with aplomb by the Vasari singers. I could not get to grips with this piece, but then Messiaen was ever my bête-noire and attempts to understand and appreciate his music in the past have been accompanied by failure!
The recording for all works is up to Guild’s usual high standards, and reproduction and balance of parts is very natural. In total a disc for specialists or those liking the unusual in repertoire. John Portwood