The claim is made, somewhat sensationally, that “this album marks the final release in this series recorded across John Scott’s illustrious tenure in New York.” The implied suggestion that this recording somehow eerily presaged Scott’s untimely demise in 2015 is misleading, however, as it was set down five years previously, and no explanation is given for the delay in releasing it. Its appearance now, though, is certainly welcome.
It brings together two well-known twentieth-century Requiems – Maurice Duruflé’s in particular being a favourite with choirs – which are not often thought of in connection with each other. The Duruflé is likely to be considered the headline work, but Herbert Howells’s example – less frequently encountered in the repertoire of English church choirs – serves as no mere prelude, to be overshadowed by the longer setting by the Frenchman whose career in many ways parallels that of Howells. Their respective Requiems bear in common that neither is a typical setting of the usual Roman Catholic office of the dead, for each use different combinations of liturgical and scriptural texts to memorialise the deceased.
The American Episcopalian (that is, Anglican) Choir of Saint Thomas’s church, New York, understandably sounds just a touch more at home in Howells’s a cappella Requiem setting (1936) than Duruflé’s, so as to achieve a more idiomatic and satisfying interpretation. In the way that Scott blends the choral timbre, with almost miraculous consistency the singers manage to sound both beautiful and austere. One is scarcely aware of the divisions that exist between different choral parts, or even as a single melody splits from its initially unison profile into two or three further parts. Neither the more jazzy harmonies of ‘Requiem aeternam I’, nor the wider dynamic range of the setting of Psalm 121 (“I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills”) put that blend or precision of texture under strain. This version stands as at least the equal of that by the Choir of St John’s College, Cambridge under Christopher Robinson on Naxos, which comes across as nearly foursquare in comparison, for all its exactness.
The Saint Thomas Choir’s sound in Duruflé’s Requiem (completed 1947) is a tad more woolly and vague – presumably deliberately in order to evoke the different, French idiom of the music (though sharing Howells’s tendency towards softer modal harmonies, but in Duruflé’s case inflected through the influence, and explicit use, of plainsong). Undoubtedly it is still a beautiful and distinctive timbre, and fully worthy of investigation by fans of this work. But it does not quite reach the same ‘seventh heaven’ of glowing mysticism as the best performances.
In the opening movements the choir sound a little muddy and, in this version using organ accompaniment alone, that instrument cannot help but seem clunky, even though it is also recessed in relation to the singers. Myron Lutzke does, however, provide a well-focused cello solo in the ‘Pie Jesu’. To take a recording by a comparable ensemble, that by Magdalen College, Oxford, under Bill Ives, attains a greater degree of otherworldliness, as well as drama, perhaps because the singers try less hard in creating such an atmosphere (though they also have the advantage of using the score with chamber-orchestra accompaniment).
That said, the excellent qualities of Scott’s interpretation greatly outweigh any drawbacks. The fresh and finely-disciplined timbre of the trebles brings its own levity, sounding particularly airborne and lilting during the ‘Kyrie eleison’, and making their layered lines in the ‘Christe eleison’ section, building upon each other step-by-step, especially memorable. Likewise their line at the opening of the ‘Sanctus’ is touching, and Scott’s way in accumulating the full choral texture seamlessly towards the climax on “in excelsis” is impressive, as is the ecstatic outburst in the ‘Libera Me’ with roaring organ. The two soloists are also highly accomplished – Richard Lippold brings an Orthodox-like fervour in ‘Domine Jesu Christe’, and Kirsten Sollek a deep-throated, woody, almost moody character in the ‘Pie Jesu’ that surely owes something to the emotionalism of Hélène Bouvier’s extraordinary rendition in Duruflé’s own recording where the distinction between musical performance and tearful whining is virtually indistinguishable in her singing.
Forging the link between these two works is a crisp account of Vaughan Williams’s Valiant-for-truth, setting words from John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. As a whole this release is a moving and uplifting memorial to the career of one of the greatest English church musicians in contemporary times.