ALBUM TITLE: Fauré: Requiem, Cantique de Jean Racine, Messe Basse
WORKS: Requiem, Cantique de Jean Racine, Messe Basse
PERFORMER: Gerald Finley (baritone), Tom Pickard (treble), Douglas Tang, Tom Etheridge (organ); The Choir of King’s College, Cambridge; Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment/Stephen Cleobury
This recording of Fauré’s Requiem, quite outstanding in its beauty, balance and sensitivity, also has claims to historical interest. Between the first performance of five movements in Paris’s Madeleine church in 1888 and that of the full seven in the symphony orchestra score in 1900, the composer made various other versions, certainly reflecting the forces available and possibly also further original thoughts. The version recorded here, in an edition by Marc Rigaudière, was given in that church on 13 February 1889 and was the first liturgical performance of all seven movements. It was also a prestigious affair, organised by the Red Cross ‘for the soldiers and sailors who died in the service of France’ and attended by a number of military top brass, including the ex-president Marshal MacMahon who had been captured at the battle of Sedan.
Even if this official outing testified to the work’s early recognition (despite the curé’s response to the premiere that the repertoire was already full enough, thank you), there was no grandiose aesthetic inflation of it. Le Figaro reported that chorus and instrumentalists from the Opéra also took part, but there was nothing unusual in this: many of the men in the Madeleine choir also sang regularly in the Paris opera houses.
The overall effect remains, as Fauré later said, ‘gentle, just like me’. However, he was not always gentle, and certainly not in the letter he wrote to the violinist Ysaÿe in 1900 in which he castigated a baritone he’d just heard in the work as ‘détestable’, his problem being that ‘he’s a real operatic singer and understood nothing of the calm and gravity of his part in the Requiem.’
He should also be ‘a little precentor-like’. Baritone Gerald Finley, as we know, can do ‘operatic’ with the best of them when required, but here he is superbly ‘tranquille’: peaceful, consoling, entirely at ease; and the vibrato-less violas provide a perfect backcloth. Considerable trouble has been taken by the King’s team to recreate the original sound as far as possible, even to taking account of the Madeleine’s choir organ (the stoplist is in the booklet notes) round which the singers congregated. The boys of King’s College Choir fully live up to their illustrious tradition, and treble Tom Pickard in the ‘Pie Jesu’ sends shivers down the spine in the approved manner.
The Cantique de Jean Racine of 1865 shows the 20-year-old composer already in control of his material, while the Messe basse, a work of 1881 revised in 1907, may be plain-looking on the page, but is an absolute delight, the trebles Joshua Curtis and Adam Banwell matching their colleague in radiance of tone. Roger Nichols