Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Duruflé and Fauré Requiems @ Royal Festival Hall, London

4 June 2017

Elizabeth Watts
(Photo: Marco Borggreve)

Half a century separates the Parisian Requiems of Gabriel Fauré and Maurice Duruflé, and, although they are settings of the same textual model (both omit the bulk of the ‘Dies irae’, and conclude with a setting of ‘In paradisum’, the final antiphon of the Requiem Mass), their characters are very different. Fauré’s free-composed piece is light and airy, redolent of the Belle Époque and full of hummable tunes; Duruflé – the devout liturgist  – created a more austere piece, solidly based on the plainsong chants for the Mass, accompanied by modernist harmonies.

Sunday evening saw both works juxtaposed in their full concert-performance orchestral versions (for the Duruflé, a rare event, as the orchestration is large) by The Philharmonia and the Rodolfus Choir under Jérémie Rhorer’s direction.

Rhorer brought an expansiveness to both works, the basic tempi being slower than often heard – there were moments (in the Duruflé ‘Kyrie’, for example) where everything almost slowed to a halt. The approach, however, served both pieces well, and allowing the rich orchestral tones time to breathe was no bad thing in a concert-hall rather than a liturgical setting. Urgency and speed happened when they needed to – in Duruflé’s ‘Domine Jesu Christe’ or Fauré’s ‘Libera me’, for example – and the big climaxes (in the ‘Sanctus’ of both pieces) were tightly controlled in terms of speed and dynamic – allowing the fortissimo to blossom and then be pulled back.

The Philharmonia turned in a first-class performance, full of special moments: the warm low-string sound in so many places; the thrilling (and unbroken) horn-call in the Fauré ‘Sanctus’; the crashing full-orchestral terror of the Duruflé ‘Libera me’, and the sweetly fluid execution, by the violins, of what is surely the best tune in the Fauré – the introduction to the ‘Agnus Dei’.

The Rodolfus Choir gave a generally good account, and the fortissimi were thrilling, but the youth of many of the voices showed in the quieter moments, where more intensity of tone was needed to be heard over the orchestra. The tone of the choir sections was also slightly uneven: the alto section (the women’s voices spiced with a couple of counter-tenors) demonstrated an alluringly warm solidity, and their entries were always clear; the tenor tone, however, inclined to the querulous, and entries that should have been triumphant (in the ‘Hosanna’ of the Duruflé Sanctus, for example) were flabby. The bass entry in the Duruflé, marking the return of the ‘Kyrie’ theme was as solid as it should be, and, although the soprano intonation throughout was good, the voices occasionally felt as though they were straining for notes rather than floating.

Elizabeth Watts and Jean-Sébastien Bou performed the solo parts in both works with brilliance. ‘Pie Jesu’ is scored for mezzo in the Duruflé, and for soprano in the Fauré, but Watts took them both in her stride, finding an ardent creamy tone (with some outstanding chest voice) for the former, yet changing to a bell-clear sweetness for the latter. Bou’s quiet passages (the last statement of ‘Libera me’ in the Fauré, for example) were reverently hushed, but  the unleashing of the full-on drama of his baritone in the Duruflé ‘tremens factus’ made the hall ring.

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