O sacrum convivium, Op.27
Hymne à la Vierge, Op.24
Attende, Domine, Op.45
Notre Père d’Aix, Op.75
Tu es Petrus, Op.29
O quam suavis est, Op.76
Salutation angélique, Op.20
Strophes polyphoniques pour le Veni Creator, Op.28
Panis angelicus, Op.80
O salutaris hostia, Op.21
Ave verum, Op.3
Salve regina, Op.5
O quam amabilis es, Op.71
Jesu, dulcis memoria, Op.78
Adoro te, Op.31
O magnum misterium, Op.53
James Vivian (organ)
Reviewed by: Timothy Ball
Reviewed: June 2006
CD No: HYPERION CDA67539
Duration: 63 minutes
Like his French compatriots Paul Dukas and Maurice Duruflé, Pierre Villette (1926-1998) had a fastidiously self-critical inclination, and whilst he left a greater number of works than his two predecessors – about eighty – most are on a small scale, such as the sacred pieces collected here.
In fact this disc contains most of Villette’s church music – largely for unaccompanied choir – though I should now be fascinated to hear his “Missa da pacem” for soprano, chorus, two organs and orchestra, not to mention Désillusion for big band.
Clearly, Villette’s output is diverse – though much of it remains unrecorded. He was a contemporary of Pierre Boulez at the Paris Conservatoire, though it is hard to imagine a greater difference of approach to composition. Boulez the serial-inspired radical, and Villette soaking himself in the Catholic choral tradition and, like Duruflé, finding inspiration in plainsong.
One might have thought a chronological approach to the programming on this CD might have been appropriate; instead, the selection has been arranged to afford due contrast between the pieces. There is a remarkable consistency of style, from the “Ave Verum” of 1944, through to “Panis Angelicus” written in 1995 – one of Villette’s very last works – which has an appealing soprano line, with its modal-inflected melody; though the richly-textured “O sacrum convivium” (which opens the disc) is more typical of the whole. Multi-divisions of the choir reaches its apogee in Inviolata (1991), with as many as twenty lines at one point. Villette’s harmony is quite sensuous, with frequent ‘added’ notes, perhaps calling to mind the gentle dissonance of, say, Herbert Howells, though, curiously, I was sometimes reminded of Gustav Holst’s choral writing.
Yet Villette’s music sounds thoroughly and undoubtedly ‘French’, with Messiaen’s own setting of “O sacrum convivium” being an undoubted model. Actual plainsong is used in “Strophes polyphoniques pour le Veni Creator”. The choir’s parts often move in rhythmic unison – contrapuntal motion is rare – and most of the pieces here are short in duration – only three are over five minutes long – yet there is variety enough even within the short time-span.
To afford further contrast, there are two organ-accompanied items. Whilst I doubt whether the very English-sounding instrument in The Temple Church is what Villette would have had in mind, James Vivian is nevertheless powerful in “Tu es Petrus”, and gently supportive for “Salutation angélique”, here given to the sopranos in unison, though I gather it was written for a solo singer.
But without in any way wishing to suggest that this music ‘palls’, even at first hearing, it has to be said that over an hour’s worth of similar sounds is perhaps best broken up into smaller sequences; furthermore, the composer would not have envisaged these pieces being sung one after the other – their intended placing into a liturgical context would have ensured this.
About the actual performances, there can be very little reservation. The choir sounds secure, with difficult harmonies accurately and confidently delivered. Tempos seem ideal. If there is a caveat, it is that perhaps the overall sonority is just a little too refined, too urbane. French choirs invariably have a characteristic ‘edge’ to them – though not always of the right kind.
In any event, the Holst Singers under Stephen Layton’s customarily effective and efficient direction do more than justice to Pierre Villette, whose music, on the evidence of this finely-recorded disc, deserves to be far wider and better known. Hopefully, this Hyperion release will assist in that process.