Maurice Duruflé's Requiem: the best recordings
Gregorian chant meets the sumptuous soundworld of 20th-century France, as Jeremy Pound searches out the finest recordings of Duruflé’s mass for the dead
Already on his desk were a set of sketches for a suite of organ works based on Gregorian plainchant – so, shelving that project, he instead used the chants as the foundation for his new mass which, accordingly, quotes the Mass of the Dead extensively throughout.
Like his fellow Frenchman Fauré over 50 years earlier, Duruflé intended the mood of his Requiem to be largely contemplative, though there are moments of fire and brimstone too, not least when it is performed in the original version for choir and full symphony orchestra. Premiered in 1947, that version was followed soon after by a reduced score for choir and organ – plus cello accompaniment in the passionate ‘Pie Jesu’ for mezzo-soprano soloist – and, in 1961, by a further edition for choir, organ and chamber-sized orchestra.
The best recordings of Maurice Duruflé's Requiem
Matthew Best (conductor)
Ann Murray, Thomas Allen, Corydon Singers, Thomas Trotter (organ); ECO (1985)
The Corydon Singers opt here for the 1961 version of the Requiem, described by Andrew McGregor in the disc’s excellent sleevenotes as ‘in many ways an ideal version, preserving as it does the intimacy of the organ-only score and also the expressive and dramatic possibilities of the full orchestral score.’ In theory, yes, but only in the right hands – the unusual combination of choir, organ, strings, harp, trumpets and timpani can lead to an uneven-sounding performance if not handled with care. No such worries with conductor Matthew Best (pictured), who gauges to perfection when to unleash the full forces at his disposal, but largely employs them with the utmost discretion as he seeks to maintain an overall atmosphere of measured, heavenly calm. His pacing is immaculate, in particular in the Sanctus, where the lower strings and harp tread with a purposeful march as, joined by trumpet fanfares, we are ushered upwards towards a thrilling, exuberant ‘Hosanna’ climax.
The standard of singing is excellent throughout, and topped off by two star-name soloists, Thomas Allen and Ann Murray, whose Pie Jesu never crosses the line that runs between ‘passionate’ and ‘operatically melodramatic’ – others could take note here. The fine acoustic of St Jude-on-the-Hill in Hampstead is captured in superb recorded sound.
Gary Graden (conductor)
Paula Hoffman, Peter Mattei, St Jacob’s Chamber Choir; Mattias Wager (organ) (1983)
Perfectionist that he was, Duruflé would surely have approved of this recording of the version for choir and organ, as it is immaculate. Every phrase has been lavished with love and attention by the Stockholm-based St Jacob’s Choir and their conductor Gary Graden, whose impeccable balance between voices, and between choir and organ, ensures that not one moment of Duruflé’s sumptuous harmonic writing goes to waste – whether in the thundering chords of the Domine Jesu Christe or the most delicate pianissimo of the In Paradisum, their consistency of tone never lapses. For a masterclass in flawlessness, look no further. But is it a little lacking in character? Possibly.
Christopher Robinson (conductor)
Kathryn Turpin, William Clements, Choir of St John’s College, Cambridge;
Iain Farrington (organ) (2000)
Nimbus NI 5599
St John’s College, Cambridge and Duruflé’s Requiem have enjoyed a long companionship – the choir championed the work under George Guest, and their recording in 1975 was praised by the composer. That disc is still available (Decca), but to hear the choir in equally good voice and in richer recorded sound, go for its 2000 recording. As with a number of the recordings with boys’ choirs – try also Westminster Cathedral under James O’Donnell and New College under Edward Higginbottom – there’s a liveliness to the singing here, and refreshing lack of self-indulgence. And while the college’s Mander organ is a different beast to Duruflé’s instrument at Saint-Etienne-du-Mont, Iain Farrington mixes its many colours brilliantly.
Andrew Davis (conductor)
Kiri Te Kanawa, Siegmund Nimsgern; Ambrosian Singers, New Philharmonia Orchestra (1977)
Sony Classical 88697720392
The available recordings of the original version for symphony orchestra are a mixed bunch. With Cecilia Bartoli and Bryn Terfel as his soloists, Myung-Whun Chung’s Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia disc promises much but fails to spring to life, while Robert Shaw rules his Atlanta Symphony recording out by, bizarrely, having the entire choir sing the mezzo and baritone solos. So the vote goes to the Ambrosian Singers and New Philharmonia Orchestra under a 33-year-old Andrew Davis, who is evidently having a ball. No, there’s not much subtlety on offer, but as timps crash and brass blasts, it is undeniably thrilling. Nor, as she dips into mezzo territory, would I want to be without Kiri Te Kanawa’s sublime Pie Jesu.
Jeremy Pound is currently BBC Music Magazine’s Deputy Editor, a role he has held since 2004. Before that, he was the features editor of Classic CD magazine, and has written for a colourful array of publications ranging from Music Teacher to History Revealed, Total Football and Environment Action; in 2018, he edited and co-wrote The King’s Singers: Gold 50th anniversary book.