FAURE: Requiem; Cantique de Jean Racine; Messe basse—Gerald Finley, bar./ Tom Pickard, treble/ Choir of King’s College, Cambridge; Orch. of the Age of Enlightenment/ Stephen Cleobury – King’s College

FAURE: Requiem; Cantique de Jean Racine; Messe basse – Gerald Finley, bar./ Tom Pickard, treble/ Choir of King’s College, Cambridge; Orch. of the Age of Enlightenment/ Stephen Cleobury – King’s College multichannel SACD KGS0005, 51:33 [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] ****:

The Faure Requiem is one of those pieces with a tortured revision history. Well, not exactly that severe, as there are no doubts as to which version requires what forces; but there are some to choose from, even though most orchestras have settled on the last as a textus receptus. Basically it comes down to this: the 1887-88 initial version in five movements, no winds, two violas and cellos, bass, organ, harp, and timpani, with mixed choir; the 1888-94 when the “Offertorium” was added (with baritone soloist) along with the “Libera me” and adding two bassoons, two or four horns, two trumpets, and three trombones at different places (this lasted until 1900); and the final 1900 “definitive” version which added two flutes and clarinets, as well as violins in certain movements, basically full orchestra. This is what we are most familiar with.

Cleobury has opted for “period” instruments ostensibly mimicking the turn of the century performance practices that Faure would have known, though for all practical purposes you really can’t hear anything that sounds terribly different from a modern performance. Even the organ attempts to recreate the registrations that would have been employed at the Ste. Madeleine in Paris where this 1889 premiere took place (skillfully reconstructed by Marc Rigaudiere). The orchestra is small, with violas, cellos, and basses, and with solo violin and brass in various movements. Because the “O Domine” text in the “Offertory” is absent in the original, an additional appendix has been added showing the difference with its inclusion.

The singing and playing cannot be faulted—this is an exemplary performance by any standard, and the surround sound is superb, caught in the resonant acoustics of the college. Some will balk at the inclusion of boys and a treble soloist, as at this point in time Faure intended a mixed choir with a soprano soloist, but the original, because the L’église Sainte-Marie-Madeleine in Paris did not permit women choristers, did include boys, and the forces found here would be used out of necessity.

However, the Messe basse, published in 1907 but actually an early work composed in Normandy in 1881, knows no such limitations as it was intended for a three-part (SSA) division for women’s religious communities, and for a release that is centered so thoroughly on authenticity this is a bit anachronistic even though it is certain that various churches used different choral ensembles of varying skill levels, and there are other recordings that use only boys. The piece itself is a little mixed also—Andre Messager, Faure’s pupil, collaborated with Faure on the work though the composer later revised it and rewrote some of the movements. It is sung very well here.

Cantique of Jean Racine is another youthful piece, though very popular, and actually takes its text from the Tuesday Matins office from a hymn attributed to St. Ambrose. This short work represents Faure’s religious settings at their best, immaculately sung by the college choir.

This is an exemplary release, enthusiastically recommended!

—Steven Ritter

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