Though the organ music of Jean Langlais is encountered quite frequently on disc his choral music is not all that strongly represented, apart from individual pieces included in mixed programmes though I did review one disc, of French provenance, a few years ago. The reappearance at budget price of this Hyperion Helios disc, previously available as CDA66270, is very welcome.
The Missa Salve regina is spectacular. Based on a plainchant melody it’s unusually and opulently scored. It follows the French tradition of Mass settings involving two organs - the Grand Orgue and the Orgue de Choeur - but Langlais goes further. He includes a brass octet from which a pair each of trumpets and trombones play with the Grand Orgue while the remaining trumpet and three trombones partner the other organ. There are two choirs: a male voice choir (TTBB) and a unison choir, here comprising trebles. These forces, often used to contrast with each other, are deployed effectively and impressively. Much of the music is celebratory and colourful and one thing I like is the way that the sound of the trebles often cuts right through the textures. It’s an often-imposing pièce d’occasion - it was first performed in Notre Dame, Paris at Christmas 1954 - and it sounds absolutely splendid here. The Mass does not include a setting of the Credo and the organ piece, Rosa mystica, is inserted after the Gloria, effectively taking the place of a voluntary at the Offertory.
The slightly earlier Messe solenelle is more conventionally scored for mixed choir and organ. It’s another fine setting, though different in tone. The Kyrie builds from a quiet, austere start and becomes progressively more impassioned and powerful; by the end of the movement the organ is a towering presence in the texture. Again there is no Credo. The Sanctus is exciting; the Benedictus more calm and reflective until, at the end, there’s a reprise of the short but very energetic ‘Hosanna’ from the Sanctus. In the Agnus Dei Langlais gradually ratchets up the intensity and tension, culminating in a loud, urgent ‘Dona nobis pacem.’ The Westminster choir gives a fervent performance.
The programme is completed by two highly contrasting organ solos. La nativité is a tranquil meditation on various elements of the Nativity scene. Hymne d’actions de graces ‘Te Deum’ brings the programme to an emphatic and thrilling end. The piece sounds magnificently sonorous on the Westminster Cathedral organ, especially the sound of the pedals. This instrument can be a full-throated beast and James O’Donnell gives it its head. The last couple of minutes are superb.
All three of the leading musicians here have gone on to have distinguished careers since this recording was made. David Hill stepped down as Master of the Music at Westminster Cathedral shortly after making this recording, since when his musical journey has taken him variously to Winchester Cathedral, St John’s College, Cambridge, the Bach Choir and the BBC Singers. James O’Donnell, Hill’s assistant at the time of this recording, succeeded him as Master of the Music before moving down the road to the equivalent post at Westminster Abbey. Andrew Lumsden, Assistant Organist at Southwark Cathedral in 1987, eventually succeeded David Hill at Winchester Cathedral. With musicians of this calibre behind this recording no wonder the quality of the music-making is so high.
The recording was made nearly thirty years ago but still sounds most impressive. The main organ is thrillingly reported while the choir and brass are vividly captured.
This is a most welcome reissue.