Dupre Calvaire GMCD7239

Déjà Review: this review was first published in April 2003 and the recording is still available.

Jean Langlais (1907-1991)
Festival Alleluia (1971)
Jehan Alain (1911-1940)
O Salutaris
Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992)
O sacrum Convivium (1937)
Marcel Dupré (1886-1971)
La France au Calvaire, Op. 49 (1952/3)
Helen Neeves (soprano); Catherine Denley (alto); Matthew Beale (tenor); Colin Campbell (baritone)
Jeremy Filsell (organ)
Vasari Singers/Jeremy Backhouse
rec. 2002, Douai Abbey, Upper Woolhampton, UK
Guild GMCD7239 [78]

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.

John Quinn

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