Faure: Requiem (CD review)

Also, Cantique de Jean Racine; Tu es Petrus; Tantum ergo. Rolf Beck, Schleswig-Holstein Festival Chor Lubek; Ensemble orchestral de Paris. Hanssler Classic CD 98.628.

People probably know the influential French organist, pianist, teacher, and composer Gabriel Faure (1845-1924) best for his Pavane in F-sharp minor, Op. 50 (1887) for orchestra and optional chorus, and his Requiem, Op. 48 (1887, revised 1893-1900) for choir, soloists, and orchestra. This is not to suggest that his many nocturnes and songs or his orchestral music for Pelléas et Mélisande aren't important or popular; they just tend to take a backseat to the Pavane and Requiem. The present disc gives us yet another performance of the Requiem, along with several other choral numbers.

People have, of course, been writing Requiem Masses--musical services, hymns, or dirges celebrating the repose of souls of the dead--for many years, and they have, understandably, been mostly somber, weighty, solemn affairs. Not so with Faure's version. As Faure himself remarked of it, "It has been said that my Requiem does not express the fear of death, and someone has called it a lullaby of death.  But it is thus that I see death: as a happy deliverance, an aspiration toward happiness above, rather than as a painful experience. My Requiem was composed...for pleasure." For this reason, Faure's Requiem has become one of the most celebrated settings of the mass, perhaps almost as famous as Mozart's. So we should welcome any new interpretation of the work, like this one from Rolf Beck and his Schleswig-Holstein Festival Choir of Lubek, supported by the Ensemble orchestral de Paris.

After writing the work for chamber orchestra and choir, Faure had second thoughts and revamped it in 1898-1900 for full orchestra and apparently was happy with that arrangement for the rest of his days. So that's the way folks played it until the 1980's, when British composer, conductor, editor, arranger, and all-around musicologist John Rutter found Faure's original manuscript for chamber orchestra, which Beck follows here. It's a little more intimate a setting, and it allows the chorus more room to shine.  (You can find Rutter's own, very fine performance, incidentally, on a Collegium CD.)

Anyway, Beck and his singers and players are serene and tranquil in the opening Intuit et Kyrie, and then they continue the mood with a sweet and leisurely Offertoire. Under Beck, the Sanctus displays a Schubertian grace, followed by soprano soloist Chiyuki Okamura floating her voice above the notes in the Pie Jesus segment. The Agnus Dei is a dramatic high point in the piece; and after that, baritone David Wilson gets his turn in the sun with Libera me. Beck closes the work with an appropriately innocent and heavenly In Paradisum, which may be the best part of the show.

Of the three additional couplings on the disc, the lovely Cantique de Jean Racine stands out. Although Faure wrote it as a student presentation when he was nineteen, there is nothing immature about it at all. The two other, brief sacred pieces, Tu es Petrus and Tantum egro, seem more ordinary by comparison, but Beck's singers perform the Tantum ergo so beautifully, it doesn't matter.

Hanssler Classics recorded the performances live at Christkirche zu Rendsburg (Requiem) and Dom zu Meldorf in July and August of 2010. There is a slight edge on the massed voices, not much, nothing of any real concern. Otherwise, the sound is not quite as lucid as my favorite recording with David Willcocks (EMI), but it's nicely expansive, perhaps owing to the live acoustic. The three accompanying pieces sound a bit bigger and more spacious, with greater depth to the chorus and a fuller bloom on the instrumentation. For that matter, however, nothing about the recordings sound live, and if the back of the jewel box hadn't said so, I wouldn't have guessed. So, despite my general disdain for live recordings, this one at least doesn't call attention to the fact.


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