Angelus: French Sacred Song
Sarah Fox (soprano)
Rupert Gough (organ), Cecily Beer (harp)
rec. 2022, Buckfast Abbey, Devon, UK.
Texts & English translations included
Ad Fontes AF009 
The only ‘complaint’ (though it doesn’t really merit that word) I can make about this disc is no more than a pedantic quibble: its subtitle is French Sacred Song, but it includes a work by Franck, who only became a French citizen in 1872, and closes with a work by the Belgian composer, Flor Peeters. In every other respect – concept, choice of programme, performance, recorded sound, packaging and documentation, I have only unqualified praise.
The governing motif of the album is a Catholic act of devotion, the Angelus, an honouring of the incarnation of Christ; this devotion is usually performed three times each day – morning, noon and evening – in Catholic churches. It is usually accompanied by the ringing of the Angelus bell, both as a call to prayer and as a reminder of the devotional act for those not able to be in church.
The disc establishes this central motif immediately, with a fine performance of Vierne’s Les Angélus, a setting, for soprano and organ, of three poems by Jehan Le Povre Moyne (1903-1970), a journalist, novelist and poet. Each of the poems reflects on the meaning and experience of hearing the Angelus bell at these three points during the day as, for example, when at the sound of the morning bell “the night flees and the / salvation of the Archangel / is joyful over my sleeping / town”. (My quotation is from the English translation in the comprehensive documentation provided though, oddly, I can’t find any information as to who prepared these translations!). The sound of the Angelus bell is imitated, not for the only time on the disc, in the organ part. This well-designed programme is effectively bookended by Flor Peeters’ Speculum Vitæ a setting of four poems – ‘Night’, ‘Morning’, ‘Midday’ and ‘Evening’ – by the Flemish poet Jozef Simons (1888-1948). Here they are sung in an English language version “made for publication in 1958 by Edition Peters” (notes by Rupert Gough). These two works by Vierne and Peeters are both sung by Sarah Fox accompanied by organist Rupert Gough and both get memorable and moving interpretations. There are fewer explicit allusions to the Angelus in the texts set by Peeters, but like the poems of Le Povre, set by Vierne, they are thoroughly permeated by the sense that each day is a life in miniature. Flor Peeters was, like Vierne, a very accomplished organist, and in the works recorded here their understanding of the organ is strikingly evident.
I feel sure that both Vierne and Peeters would have relished playing the instrument Rupert Gough has at his disposal here. The magnificent instrument in question, in Buckfast Abbey, was the creation of the world-famous Italian organ makers Fratelli Ruffatti; indeed, this was the first UK organ constructed by them. It is undoubtedly one of the stars of this disc which, in turn, means that the recording engineer, David Hinnit, deserves a similar accolade for the skill with which he has captured the splendid sound of this instrument and its resonance in the Abbey’s acoustic. 12 of the 60 pages in the small format hardback book in which the disc comes are devoted to the organ, with full specifications provided. I will, therefore, limit myself to saying only that the sound is glorious and that Gough is thoroughly judicious in his choice of stops and colours.
In Franck’s Panis Angelicus, Sarah Fox and Rupert Gough are joined by harpist Cecily Beer. Franck’s famous setting of a verse from St. Thomas Aquinas’ hymn Sacris solemniis was originally written as part of a revision of the Orchestral Mass he had prepared for the Basilica of Sante-Clotilde in 1861. In 1872 he revised the Mass for smaller forces (organ, harp, cello and double bass). In this revision, the Panis Angelicus was introduced in a setting for solo tenor. Rupert Gough’s notes tell us that “For this recording, the 1872 version is reworked for soprano, harp and organ, with the organ also taking the part of the solo cello”. The result is remarkably beautiful; the balance of voice and instruments is perfectly judged and Sarah Fox sings with exceptional vocal beauty while never ceasing to pay attention to the words she is singing.
Having offered some brief discussion of three of the works recorded here, it would, I think, be otiose to comment on all the remaining works in the programme since I would find myself lavishing many of the same terms of praise on them. I feel obliged, however, to make a few exceptions. I cannot remember ever having heard previously the two exquisite Marian antiphons (Ave Regina Cælorum and Salve Regina) by that meticulous composer Jean Roger-Ducasse. Sung, again, by soprano with organ, these brief pieces (each well under three minutes long) are startlingly beautiful as interpreted by Fox and Gough, both written with a deceptive appearance of simplicity which must have been the product of a good deal of hard work.
Another very appealing discovery comes in the form of Rupert Gough’s arrangement for harp, organ and bell of Vierne’s À l’Angelus du Soir (Op 17, No 5). The piece so skilfully and evocatively arranged is a movement (the fifth of seven) from Vierne’s Suite bourguignonne (1899) for piano. My only familiarity with this suite comes from Sergio Monteiro’s performance of it on Volume One of his recording of Vierne’s Complete Piano Works (review). Attractive as Monteiro’s interpretation is, Gough’s arrangement adds another layer of Burgundian atmosphere. In his notes Gough observes that À l’Angelus du Soir was one of four movements of the Suite bourguignonne which were later orchestrated “providing the inspiration for this new arrangement for harp, organ and bell”.
The works I have not mentioned all receive fine and perceptive readings (not least Messiaen’s O sacrum convivium in the version for soprano and organ) and the absence of a specific mention of them should not be understood to imply any negativity about them on my part.
In its mixture of the relatively familiar and the largely unknown, its superb performances and excellent recorded sound, and the joy of hearing the magnificent Ruffatti organ, this is an outstanding disc – which will delight all save those with a rooted antipathy to sacred music or to what John Milton called (in ‘Il Penseroso’) “the pealing organ”.
Glyn PursgloveAvailability: Ad Fontes
Louis Vierne (1870-1937)
Les Angélus, Op 37 (1929)
César Franck (1822-1890)
Panis angelicus – Messe à trois voix, Op 12 (1872)
Jean Roger-Ducasse (1873-1954)
Ave Regina cælorum (1910-11)
Salve Regina (1910-11)
Henri Büsser (1872-1973)
Le sommeil de l’enfant Jésus, Op 3 No 3
Ernest Chausson (1855-1899)
Pater noster, Op 16 (1889)
Louis Vierne, arr. Rupert Gough (b.1971)
à l’Angélus du soir, Op 17 No 5 (1899)
Jean Langlais (1907-1991)
Ave Maria (1947)
O salutaris (c.1945)
Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992)
O sacrum convivium (1937)
Angélus from Huits chants de Bretagne, Op 161 (1974)
André Caplet (1878-1925)
Pater noster (1919)
Lili Boulanger (1893-1918)
Pie Iesu (1918?)
Nadia Boulanger (1887-1979)
Lux æterna (rearranged by the composer from a cantique she composed in 1909)
Flor Peeters (1903-1986)
Speculum Vitae, Op 57 (1935)