Some readers, not to mention a colleague or two, have been critical of my overlong reviews and Music 101 lectures, so I’ll try to boil this down to its essentials, trying to avoid too lengthy of a dissertation on all of the unsettled discrepancies and disagreements surrounding Fauré’s beloved Requiem. But readers still have a right to know what they’re getting.
In a nutshell, the work basically comes in three flavors, each more gingered up than the one before it. The composer’s “Ur-original” from 1888 was a work of modest ambition, being scored for boy or female soprano, mixed chorus, harp, timpani, organ, a solo violin in the Sanctus, and lower strings; and it contained only five movements—Introit-Kyrie, Sanctus, Pie Jesu, Agnus Dei, and In Paradisum.
Then came John Rutter in the mid 1980s with a reconstructed version of Fauré’s second go at the piece, which hadn’t been heard in more than 80 years. That version, dating from 1893, now contained the familiar Offertory and Libera me featuring a part for baritone solo, and had added parts for horns, trumpets, bassoons, and violins. Rutter never claimed this was Fauré’s “Ur-original,” but he did say in the booklet note to his 1985 Collegium recording that it was the “ideal” version (his personal value judgment, of course), and many conductors followed in his footsteps, adopting Rutter’s chamber-orchestra-sized setting.
The third and final version was long considered “definitive,” a word used by Claire Delarmarche in her program note to the Paavo Järvi album; though the score was riddled with mistakes and last-minute changes and corrections, and the authenticity of its authorship has always been in doubt—it’s believed that Fauré’s student Jean Roger-Ducasse may have had more of a hand in it than Fauré did—it remains popular and is still frequently performed and recorded. It was, after all, that version that was performed on July 12, 1900, in the cavernous concert hall of the Trocadéro as part of the World Expo festivities, and for that performance even more instruments—flutes, clarinets, and trombones—were added, along with other adjustments to the orchestration. Paul Taffanel led the full forces of the Paris Conservatory Orchestra and Chorus, plus the large Cavaillé-Coll organ in this, the work’s official public debut. It may not have been Berlioz’s Requiem, but it was certainly no small affair.
That’s the short history of Fauré’s Requiem. In the interest of brevity, I’m leaving out the myriad complicated and confusing details of the work’s genesis, including, for example, that the Libera me, which was not even included in the original 1888 version, had already been composed the year before as an independent stand-alone piece. The many twists and turns the Requiem took from its unassuming beginnings to its grand Trocadéro unveiling suggest that Fauré may well have been ambivalent about the work and uncertain as to what its final form should be.
We have here two new (though not proximally recorded) releases of Fauré’s Requiem, one of them indispensable and unique, the other possibly unique, though definitely not indispensable. Järvi’s Virgin disc was newly recorded in 2011; Winfried Toll’s Ars Musici dates back to 1994.
Järvi apparently subscribes to Delamarche’s belief, more or less, that the 1900 Trocadéro performance is the final word on the subject, so this is not the scaled-down 1893 Rutter version that has become popular in recent years. But unless my ears deceive me, it’s also not quite the “full monty” version heard at the Trocadéro either. I don’t, for example, hear flutes and clarinets, though in the big, massed climaxes with brass and organ blaring, it can be a bit hard to tell.
Let me hasten to add that I’m not criticizing the full orchestral treatment. It’s entirely viable and still well respected, enjoying many fine modern recordings. Unusual here, however, is Järvi’s inspired choice of a countertenor to sing the famous Pie Jesu instead of a boy or female soprano—inspired because Philippe Jaroussky’s voice and singing of the piece will give you goosebumps. For me, this is one aspect of Järvi’s disc that makes it indispensable, though I can’t say unique because I don’t know whether it has been done before or not.
Also to be noted is that though Järvi has considerable choral and orchestral forces at his command, he uses them judiciously and with restraint, resisting the temptation to beef up the score beyond Fauré’s unpretentious approach to the Requiem which, after all, abstains from the terrors of the Dies irae.
The booklet note to the Ars Musici album is misleading, inadvertently so, I would hope, in suggesting that Toll gives us Fauré’s “original” (i.e., 1888) version of the score. In point of fact, what he gives us is essentially Rutter’s reconstructed 1893 version with perhaps a minor modification or two from handwritten manuscripts discovered subsequent to Rutter’s pioneering work. But no details are provided, so for all practical purposes, Toll’s Requiem is yet another performance of the work in a line of many that follow in Rutter’s footsteps. In this respect, Toll and Järvi are really not comparable because they’re singing from a different page, as it were.
But even allowing for that, I can’t help but observe that neither Toll’s chorus nor his orchestra is a match for Järvi’s. Isolde Siebert’s Pie Jesu is a bit tremulous or wobbly and the Freiburg Camerata’s singers seem to equate rapt and devotional with timid and tentative. The Camerata’s instrumentalists just sound lethargic, which I largely attribute to Toll’s slower than usual tempos. So, if you’re looking for the interim 1893 version of the Requiem, courtesy of Rutter, there’s Rutter’s own still perfectly serviceable 1985 Collegium recording, or for something a bit more recent, Matthew Best’s Hyperion CD with the English Chamber Orchestra and Corydon Singers is a good alternative.
Turning back to Järvi, he fills out his disc with the Cantique de Jean Racine , which is paired, almost de rigueur , with the Requiem, and the cello Elégie and Pavane, which are also frequent discmates in Fauré programs. But what makes Järvi’s CD unique as well as indispensable is its inclusion of a world premiere recording of Fauré’s Super flumina Babylonis (By the Rivers of Babylon). Written in 1863, the piece was Fauré’s third attempt to win the prestigious Prix de Rome, and for his effort, he got “a very honorable mention” but no cigar.
The work calls for five-part mixed chorus and is scored for an orchestra of winds in pairs, four horns, three trombones, timpani, and strings. Its text is drawn from Psalm 137, which begins with the Jews lamenting their exile from Jerusalem by the Babylonians and ends with their exulting in a fantasy of violent vengeance on their conquerors. If the music reminds you of Saint-Saëns, it should. Fauré was only 18 and still a student when he wrote it, and Saint-Saëns was one of his teachers. The piece may last only 10 minutes, but it’s almost worth the price of the disc by itself.
Finally, retuning once again to Toll’s CD, its companion to Fauré’s Requiem, Schumann’s C-Minor Mass, has been recorded before, though infrequently. A long-surviving version with Wolfgang Sawallisch leading the Berlin Philharmonic and the Düsseldorf State Chorus is now packaged as a two-disc budget set on EMI.
Schumann scored the Mass for orchestra; yet without a word of explanation, Toll leads a performance of it with organ-only accompaniment, and that is what may make this performance unique, but it also makes it, in my opinion, thoroughly dispensable. I don’t know if the organ reduction was Schumann’s own handiwork, but even if it was, using it in this context doesn’t make a lot of sense, considering that Toll already had the Camerata Freiburg’s players on hand for the Fauré. Why not give the work in Schumann’s original orchestration?
In any case, the Mass is not generally considered one of the composer’s more inspired creations. In fact, an ancient Schumann biography I have by Robert Haven Schauffler mentions this 1852 work as a product of the composer’s “enfeebled creative and critical power,” and dismisses it by saying “it needn’t detain us.” And detain us it hasn’t, at least not often on record.
The Camerata’s choral contingent seems a bit more comfortable in Schumann’s earnest German approach to the Latin Mass than it is in Fauré’s more ethereal French idiom, but it’s doubtful that this performance will win many converts to one of Schumann’s lesser works.
Of these two releases, there’s no question but that the new Järvi is strongly recommended. As for Toll, I’d recommend an equally strong pass.