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Gabriel FAURE (1845-1924)
Requiem, Op. 48 [35.18]
Cantique de Jean Racine, op.11 [5.26]
La Naissance de Vénus (The Birth of Venus), Op.29 [23.51]
Sara MacIver (soprano)
Jenny Duck-Chong (mezzo-soprano)
Paul McMahon (tenor)
Teddy Tahu Rhodes (bass-baritone)
Sinfonia Australis/Antony Walker
rec. City Recital Hall, Sydney, 1-4 June, 2000
ABC CLASSICS 481 2646 [64.37]

This CD, first issued in 2001, enters an obviously highly competitive field for Fauré’s Requiem, and, for many, its value will be rather for the infrequently recorded La Naissance de Vénus.
The latter is rarely performed, but is interesting and appealing. The text is by Paul Collin, and the piece, premiered in 1883 but more fully orchestrated 13 years later, is intended as a scène lyrique, that is, more suited for stage than perhaps the concert hall, though in reality more likely to be performed in concert. The text, full of mermaids and mythology, with Jupiter calling forth Venus and endowing her with the powers to grant love and joy to the world, is a curious one of uncertain merit – it goes on a bit. But it inspired Fauré to write some of his most lovely music. It held a special place in his heart, and in a recording such as the present one can hear why. In 1898, the composer performed the work in Leeds (in English) with a chorus of 400.

This recording benefits from smaller forces: the text has a clarity and orchestral sounds are telling and crisp. Listen, for example, to the representation of lapping waves in the gentle but increasingly lively opening orchestral andante. The entry of the mermaid is captured, in stillness and beauty, by Jenny Duck-Chong before the well-balanced choir. Fauré sustains the invention through the entire work.

The main competition in this work comes from Yan-Pascal Tortelier’s recording (CHAN 10133) from 2003, with the City of Birmingham Symphony Chorus with the BBC Philharmonic. That is a fine performance, with much to commend it. Recording quality is excellent in the warm Chandos sound, but I marginally prefer the Australian disc, as I think there are advantages in the use of what seem smaller forces.

For many, the decisive factor would be the coupling. Walker has the Requiem and Cantique de Jean Racine. Tortelier has both, as well as the Pavane in its choral version. Despite the loss of the Pavane, for me the present disc is overall the clear winner. Tortelier uses the full orchestral version, while Walker opts for the 1893 version for smaller forces, which scholars think closest to Fauré’s intentions. There is some loss of lushness, but gain in clarity and sense of simplicity. Anthony Walker also gains interpretively, despite Tortelier’s evident sincerity. Though overall timings are similar, Walker manages greater variety and sensitivity. Take, for example, his Agnus Dei, which is notably brisker than in some performances, and evidently quicker than Tortelier. This prayer is not a gentle lament, but a more urgent plea to God to grant the departed eternal rest. The greater urgency here suggests precisely that pleading quality.

Presentation is excellent, with informative notes and (hooray!) full texts with English translations. This reissue is part 59 of Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s admirable attempt to provide a 100-disc collection of 1000 years of classical music, supported by its own website with a wealth of additional material and podcasts.

Michael Wilkinson



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