All the Host of Heaven
Ĕriks EŠENVALDS (b.1977)
Maurice DURUFLÉ (1902-1986)
Requiem, Op.9 [41:15]
Jonathan DOVE (b.1959)
Seek Him that Maketh the Seven Stars [6:17]
Jamie Barton (mezzo-soprano), Quinn Kelsey (baritone)
Isabelle Demers (organ)
Baylor A Cappella Choir/Alan Raines
rec. 2014, Church of St. Etienne-du-Mont, Paris
ACIS APL55284 [53:03]
A two-week tour of Paris by the A Cappella Choir from Baylor University School of Music, Waco, Texas, included a recording in the church of St Etienne-du-Mont – the first there by an American choir – of Duruflé’s Requiem. Maurice Duruflé was appointed in 1929 and served as organist at St Étienne-du-Mont for almost 60 years, so much is made in the disc’s booklet of how the choir “set foot where Duruflé himself often stood” and of how they recorded the Requiem “with the instrument at which it was conceived”. This is simply not true. The Cavaillé-Coll instrument over which he presided at the time was in a state of disrepair – major work on it held back by the Second World War – and it was for this instrument that he originally composed the suite of movements from which the Requiem later grew. A substantial rebuild was completed in 1956, almost 10 years after the composition of the Requiem. Subsequently, the organ has been modified and altered by a range of builders in 1975 and again in 1991. There are many things about the present-day instrument which Duruflé would not recognise, although he would more than likely have recognised the Requiem as we hear it here in the version for organ and choir which dates from 1947.
Alan Raines has drawn a fine sound from his choir, who show considerable understanding of the score and its roots in the plainchant of the Requiem Mass. The sopranos float ethereally in both “Sed signifier” (from Domine Jesu Christ) and more especially in the In Paradisum, the ends of phrases allowed to drift off into the building’s spaces quite magically. At times, especially at the “Dies Irae”, they sound slightly tired and uninspired, as if the recording sessions had gone on just too long for them to keep the sense of occasion alive, but the recording soaks up a lot of the church’s atmosphere without obscuring the detail, and the choir, placed relatively distant from the microphones, has a fine blend of sound which merges comfortably with the organ so that the two seem ideally balanced even at the big climax points. I would wish, however, that the two soloists had been better picked. Jamie Barton exudes an operatic warmth and power which brings an unwholesome note of melodrama to the Pie Jesu, while conversely baritone Quinn Kelsey has a slightly hoarse, almost apologetic quality in his first solo (“Hostias” from Domine Jesu Christe) and fails to make any kind of dramatic impact in his second (Libera me),
Fine though the choir is, the real star of the show here is organist, Isabelle Demers, who has clearly studied Duruflé’s 1947 orchestration and works to recreate seamlessly many of the effects and colours of that on the present-day St Etienne organ. All the same, with so many competing recordings of the organ and choir version of Duruflé’s Requiem available, often with more vivid and colourful choral singing and more appropriate soloists, I am not sure the connection between recording location and composer is sufficient to make this a particularly noteworthy choice.
However, while the Requiem occupies the bulk of the disc, the performance of the two other pieces transform it into a very enticing release. Most who have already encountered it have fallen under the spell of Ĕriks Ešenvalds’ atmospheric piece for mixed choir and tuned wine glasses, Stars. Here, however, is an exceptionally compelling performance. Not only does Raines create a wonderfully expansive feel through long-breathed crescendi and diminuendi, but the Baylor A Cappella Choir produces a particularly rich and fulsome sound, with no hints of breaths being taken in what is, in effect, five minutes of pure choral sound. And there is no denying the acoustic backdrop of St Etienne plays a significant part in creating an overall soundscape of infinite depth.
Jonathan Dove’s equally evocative Seek him that maketh the seven stars is an altogether more complex work in which colour and atmosphere rub shoulders with considerable choral dexterity and genuine organ virtuosity – Demers conveys the sense of brightly sparling stars in a truly scintillating organ part. If the Ešenvalds piece is all about creating an aural atmosphere, Dove’s is all about setting a text from the psalms, and while Dove avoids blatant word painting, the music so perfectly matches the spirit of the text that it sometimes seems as if the whole universe is encapsulated into its six-minute duration. Diction may not be the Baylor choir’s strongest suit, but they more than compensate for this with singing of extraordinary flexibility and a powerful collective response to the text and the detail of Dove’s music. The final chord is most effectively delivered.