Faure: Requiem (SACD review)

Reconstructed by Marc Rigaudiere. Also, Offertoire (ed. John Rutter); Cantique de Jean Racine; Messe Basse. Gerald Finley, baritone; Tom Pickard, treble; Douglas Tang and Tom Etheridge, organ. Stephen Cleobury, Choir of King's College, Cambridge; Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. Choir of King's College KGS0005.

Most of us probably know the Requiem, Op. 48, by French composer Gabriel Faure (1845-1924) better than anything else he wrote. Of course, people have been writing Requiem Masses--musical services, hymns, or dirges celebrating the repose of souls of the dead--for years, and, understandably, they have been mostly somber, solemn, weighty affairs. Yet that's not the case with Faure's version. As Faure himself described things, "Everything I managed to entertain by way of religious illusion I put into my Requiem, which moreover is dominated from beginning to end by a very human feeling of faith in eternal rest." And, "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." As a result, Faure's Requiem has become one of the most celebrated settings of the mass, maybe almost as famous as Mozart's.

Anyway, after writing the work for chamber orchestra and choir in 1887-88, Faure had second thoughts and revamped it between 1898-1900 for full orchestra; apparently he 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 musicologist John Rutter found Faure's original manuscript for chamber orchestra, and it opened a new world for the piece. Now, we get a brand-new reconstruction of the score by Marc Rigaudiere that attempts to present the music as listeners might have heard it at its first liturgical performance, here employing a choir of men and boys from the Choir of Kings College, Cambridge and accompanied by a period-instruments ensemble, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, lead by conductor Stephen Cleobury.

Here's the thing, though: Longtime music collectors may remember or own another recording of the Faure Requiem that the Choir of King's College, Cambridge made, one from 1967 for EMI with conductor David Willcocks and the New Philharmonia Orchestra that went on, justifiably, to become quite famous. Indeed, it is still my favorite recording of the piece. So there is the temptation to compare the two versions. But it's a matter of apples and oranges; therefore, I resisted the urge. Willcocks performed the later revision of the score that Faure favored, using a full, modern orchestra; Cleobury performs the earlier version that audiences heard when Faure first composed it, and Cleobury does so with a period ensemble, using reduced orchestral and choral forces. In other words, even if you have the one, the other is different enough to warrant an alternative rendition.

A few notes about some of the changes Faure made to his Requiem. He omitted the Dies irae ("Day of Wrath") because he disagreed with this vision of the Judgment Day. He initially made the Offertoire much briefer in the version heard here, omitting the chorus (which he later reinstated and which you can hear later on the album as a coupling). And except for a solo violin in one movement, he left out violins altogether, using just violas, cellos, and double bass, with an organ as support throughout.

Overall, this is worthy rendering of a famous piece, Cleobury doing justice to Marc Rigaudiere's new reconstruction. It's largely peaceful and serene, naturally, the choir and orchestra offering up the music precisely and articulately, never hurried or rushed as we sometimes hear from historically informed performances. It's quite beautiful, actually, the youngest voices, especially, sounding positively angelic.

OK, I said I wouldn't compare this new version with the Willcocks recording from 1968: I lied. I still find the older recording a bit more lyrical, more tranquil, more peaceful, more relaxed and relaxing. That takes nothing from Cleobury's interpretation, however, and nothing from Rigaudiere's reconstruction. It's still apples and oranges. Jus' sayin'.

For those listeners who want the later, expanded Offertoire, Cleobury and company provide it as an additional item, along with Faure's Cantique de Jean Racine and the little Mass bass (the latter sung by sixteen trebles of the choir rather than by women). Cleobury and his performers do up both works exquisitely.

A light cardboard slipcover for the jewel case completes the package.

Producer and editor Simon Kiln and engineer Arne Akselberg recorded the music at 96k Hz 24-bit PCM in the Chapel of King's College, Cambridge, January 2014. The present recording offers the music on a hybrid Super Audio Compact Disc, playable on a regular CD player in two-channel stereo or on an SACD player in two-channel (as I listened) or in multichannel. The smaller orchestral and choral forces result in a reasonably transparent sound, yet the hall acoustics are spacious enough that the various groups sound bigger than they probably really are. So we get a smooth, rounded, nicely resonant sound that nevertheless admits a decent amount of detail and definition. Voices are clear but without being overly bright or edgy; the orchestra sounds well balanced with the choir; and the organ produces some prodigious bass when the occasion demands (although, to be fair, the present arrangement uses only those registers that were available to the small choir organ available at the time of the work's first performance). The solo violin, brass, and timpani that appear in some movements ring out clearly and distinctly. In all, the sound is deep, rich, warm, and resplendent.

JJP

To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:


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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

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Readers with polite, courteous, helpful letters may send them to pucciojj@gmail.com.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa