Messiaen & Duruflé

Trois petites liturgies de la Présence Divine
Requiem, Op.9

Steven Osborne (piano)
Cynthia Millar (ondes martenot)

Sarah Connolly (mezzo-soprano)
Christopher Maltman (baritone)

BBC Symphony Chorus

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Donald Runnicles

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 18 December, 2005
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Two large-scale French sacred choral works, written three years apart by composers born six years apart, yet inhabiting two distinct musical universes. Such was the thought-provoking basis of the BBC Symphony’s final public concert of 2005, and one which saw Donald Runnicles make a welcome return to the orchestra with whom he has been building a productive relationship in recent years.

It is virtually inevitable that these pieces are described in terms of the ‘new’ and the ‘old’ of French choral music. Certainly Messiaen’s “Trois petites liturgies de la Présence Divine” (1944) established a basis for many of the techniques and procedures to be found in his subsequent works, and with the use of piano and ondes martenot almost a dry run for these instruments’ more integrated role in the Turangalîla-Symphonie. Radical as was its frequent juxtaposition of syllabic chanting and seamless monody, set against a backdrop of percussion and solo strings, its direct and sensuous emotion can seem cloying in a performance of less than absolute poise. Which it received from Runnicles, whobrought out the music’s elation with a keen sense of the momentum that runs through all three of the liturgies: one which binds their differentiated but static contrasts into a cumulatively expressive and uninhibited whole. Excellent contributions from Steven Osborne and Cynthia Millar were at times undermined by a balance that obscured some of the piano’s scintillating writing, and gave the ondes martenot undue prominence within the instrumental texture. Not that this undid the efforts ofthe BBC Symphony Chorus, who projected Messiaen’s poetic fancies with trenchant clarity of diction. Those present duly responded to the music’s unorthodox but always life-affirming manner of worship.

To go on to Maurice Duruflé’s Requiem (1947) is to move from the unabashed reappraisal of tradition to its undemonstrative embracing. Like his mentor Dukas, Duruflé left a mere handful of published works (fourteen in all) – the present work being the most comprehensive statement of his faith and musical aesthetic.

Most performances these days take advantage of the later editions with ensemble or just organ accompaniment – but by opting for a full orchestral complement, Runnicles revealed an additional level of intensity in Duruflé’s setting of the text: one that, in omitting the ‘Dies irae’ sequence, proclaims its kinship with Fauré’s setting from over a half-century earlier – but which eschews that work’s ‘pre-Raphaelite’ melodic sensuousness for an overtly contrapuntal interweaving of voices and instruments, and in harmonies that readily evoke the Gregorian plainchant of centuries-old liturgical practice.

This is music that needs to flow and to remain rhythmically supple at all times, yet which benefits from the subtle heightening of dramatic tension that Runnicles brought to the ‘Sanctus’ and ‘Libera me’. In this latter, as in ‘Domine Jesu Christe’, Christopher Maltman evinced a keen fervency (such as would be ideal in Brahms’s Ein deutsches Requiem), while Sarah Connolly brought supplicatory restraint to the ‘Pie Jesu’ – its rapt calm surpassed only in the otherworldly tranquillity of the final ‘In paradisum’.

Once again, the BBC Symphony Chorus was on fine form in music whose dense translucency can easily become turgid if the balance between vocal registers, and with that of the orchestra, is left to go awry. That this was never an issue is tribute to the expertise of chorus-master Stephen Jackson; as it is to the foresight of Runnicles in putting together so singularly appropriate an ‘end of year’ coupling.

  • Concert broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on Wednesday 28 December at 7.30

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