Maurice Duruflé’s almost excessive self-criticism (characteristic also of his fellow-Frenchmen Paul Dukas and Henri Dutilleux) enables his slim if distinguished choral output to fit snugly onto one CD. Despite an already crowded discography of the Motets and the organ version of the Requiem (1961), this Signum release is welcome. The Houston Chamber Choir is a professional ensemble founded in 1995 and these scrupulously prepared accounts point to an increasing number of first-rate American choruses which have developed within the last twenty or so years.
Impressive as the HCC’s silky-smooth manner is, I have some reservations about its containment. It’s nicely blended in a Tallis Scholars sort of way but bass-light, and while polished restraint is ideal for the halting ‘Ubi caritas’ and Notre Père (similarly lacking forward momentum), the unchanging vocal colour and lack of fibre is readily apparent in the Requiem’s more theatrical passages. Consequently, the slow-burn that is the ‘Kyrie’ never quite ignites, the drama of its fortissimo passages slightly tamed. The twenty-three voices have plenty of promise, but they seem unable to expand when the music demands. The use of a baritone soloist is discarded here for unison men’s voices – permitted by Duruflé – which works well, yet I waited in vain to hear something more red-blooded. The honeyed tone fits ‘Lux aeterna’ like a glove and the sopranos are especially pleasing at ‘In Paradisum’.
Considering Robert Simpson’s expertly-paced direction (with mostly fluid tempos) and sensitive support from Ken Cowan (playing on Rice University’s acclaimed three-manual Fisk-Rosales organ), this is a handsome account. Added to which there is considerable subtlety of expression in the ‘Pie Jesu’ courtesy of Cecilia Duarte and Norman Fischer. Mercifully Duarte avoids Duruflé’s molto espressivo marking, which can often produce a coarsening of tone.
The Messe ‘Cum Jubilo’, for baritones and organ, mostly comes off well. Notwithstanding some initial flatness in the ‘Kyrie’, the men respond with forthright tone in the ‘Gloria’ (launched by exultant organ chords) and engage fulsomely with the text, as does Eduardo Tercero who makes light of the high tessitura. Over-ripe pedal timbre occasionally intrudes but reeds contrast effectively with smoky choral quality in the ‘Agnus Dei’.
Although the booklet contains an introductory note as well as texts, registration details of the organ are absent. Otherwise, Signum has done a terrific job, with exceptional clarity of recorded sound.