sat 02/03/2024

Classical CDs Weekly: Fauré, Mahler, Choir of Merton College | reviews, news & interviews

Classical CDs Weekly: Fauré, Mahler, Choir of Merton College

Classical CDs Weekly: Fauré, Mahler, Choir of Merton College

Three choral discs this week - introspection, bold affirmation, and a fresh-voiced English choir

Paavo Järvi brings life to a popular requiem settingJean Christophe Uhl

Faure's RequiemFauré: Requiem Chœur de l’Orchestre de Paris, Orchestre de Paris, Paavo Järvi, with Philippe Jaroussky (counter tenor), Matthias Goerne (baritone) (Virgin Classics)

Fauré’s understated Requiem is another iconic work which has suffered by dint of its popularity; too many dodgy amateur performances convinced me that I never wanted to hear it again. And then a fresh-sounding recording turns up, and makes you realise that there is something special going on here. It’s Fauré’s restraint which surprises: there’s little shock and bombast in this Requiem but a great deal of warm, fuzzy consolation. The surprise in Paavo Järvi’s live recording of the full orchestral version is countertenor Philippe Jaroussky’s solo in the Pie Jesu, a gamble which comes off beautifully; Jaroussky’s otherworldly vocal perfect for this work. Mathias Goerne is less distinctive, but Järvi’s large choir make a pleasingly rich sound and the overall effect is more sincere and less cloying than it can be. It’s a sober, serious reading, with a final In Paradisum which didn’t make me wince.

Virgin’s couplings are generous. They’re familiar in the case of the brief Pavane, here heard with its superfluous choral part, a setting of a truly atrocious poem, and the Elégie for cello and orchestra, beautifully played by Eric Picard. The early Cantique de Jean Racine sounds good here, but more interesting is a rare performance of Super flumina Babylonis, an ambitious 10-minute psalm setting which is so much more impetuous and heady than the Requiem. It’s Fauré working with bold colours rather than pastel shades.


Chailly's Mahler 8Mahler: Symphony No 8 Gewandhausorchester Leipzig/Riccardo Chailly (Accentus)

Classical music on DVD can seem a bit of a waste of time, unless there’s a combination of good direction and outstanding performance. The benchmark probably remains Humphrey Burton’s longstanding collaboration with Leonard Bernstein – mesmerising musicianship combined with intelligent camera-work. Filming Mahler’s Eighth Symphony must present considerable technical problems. You need to capture the work’s kaleidoscopic mood changes and shifts of scale, while at the same time balancing the sound perfectly so that the audio never distorts. Michael Beyer’s direction on this Accentus DVD is unobtrusive in the best possible way, and Riccardo Chailly’s recent live performance made me stay focused on this most intractable of Mahler symphonies. He starts the work more steadily than some but there’s plenty of weight and power - with enough in reserve to build upon, so that the performance doesn’t burn out in the first 15 minutes. Chailly has fun with Mahler’s quirky development, with its stabbing muted horns and chiming tubular bells. The clarity and force of the choral sound is remarkable, especially that of the cheerful-looking GewandhausKinderchoir. You’ll reach the end of Part One spiritually transfigured.

Mahler’s epic second movement can drag and seem incoherent; here, the craggy, wintery introduction is marvellous – the Gewandhaus wind players incredibly characterful. Chailly’s conducting style is so affirmative, so positive – every physical movement and facial tic has an effect on the ensemble’s sound. Among the soloists, Stephen Gould’s tenor and Dietrich Henschel’s baritone are wonderfully strong, but there’s not a weak link here. Look out for the mandolins, and watch the volume setting as the final brassy major ninth blasts out. It’s an overwhelmingly affirmative experience, and Chailly brings out the joy as well as the solemnity. Don’t let Neo Rauch’s cover art deter you.

Watch Chailly's Mahler 8

In The BeginningIn the Beginning Choir of Merton College, Oxford/Peter Phillips and Benjamin Nicholas (Delphian)

The Edinburgh-based label Delphian seems to have cornered the market in high-quality choral releases, and this mixed programme is just as good as earlier discs of Bruckner and Weir from British choirs. The Choir of Merton College was formed in 2008. It makes a typically English sound – it’s all to do with the clarity of diction and the flawless intonation. The basses are nicely present but never overwhelm what’s above them, and the Merton College Chapel acoustic gives the choral sound a glow which is never too resonant. Superb so far. What about the music? The best thing on the disc is saved until last: Copland’s 1947 Genesis setting, In the Beginning. Soprano Beth Mackay sings the opening phrase artlessly, as if she’s making it up on the spot; the magic of the piece is in how the music grows in sophistication and colour as the planet is filled with life. Copland’s bald harmonies gain flesh, and the closing seconds, as man appears, are stunning.

By comparison, Eric Whitacre’s When David Heard and Gabriel Jackson’s In the Beginning was the Word feel less memorable, though it’s hard not to be impressed by the bass-heavy chords which open the former – such a contrast with Copland’s white-note brightness. Thomas Weelkes’s When David Heard is bolder. Three settings of the Nunc dimittis are included, by Holst, Palestrina and the contemporary Polish composer Paweł Łukaszewski. Holst’s is the best. It’s hard not to love this disc for its sheer chutzpah – tackling music from five centuries and never putting a foot wrong.

It’s Fauré’s restraint which surprises: there’s little shock and bombast in this Requiem but a great deal of warm, fuzzy consolation

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the sadness in 'when david heard' just feels so poignant this remembrance weekend.thank you for this beautiful CD

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