Album Review

Posted: Monday 11th November 2002
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Dupré: La France au Calvaire – Gramophone

Although the Vasari Singers have already given us a taste of “La France au Calvaire”, this is the first time the complete work has appeared on disc. And an astonishing work it is, too, setting, to quote the booklet note “a curious libretto” by Rene Herval who, like Dupre, was a native of Rouen. Appalled by the devastation wrought on his native city during the Second World War, Dupre vents all his anger and passion into this 65-minute oratorio, its movements dedicated to six French saints and framed by a Prologue and Final. Principally known for his organ music, it might seem strange to question Dupre’s use of the organ here as the sole means of instrumental accompaniment. But despite Jeremy Filsell’s stunning virtuosity and brilliant handling of the not-always-perfectly-in-tune Douai Abbey organ, I can’t help feeling that the score cries out for an orchestra.

No such reservations about the performance: in a word, stunning. The bleak ugliness of Christ nailed to the cross is compellingly portrayed by Matthew Beale, Catherine Denley makes an arresting France appealing for forgiveness for her misguided people, Colin Campbell fulfils the dual roles of St Denis and the voice of Christ with suitable gravitas and authority, and Helen Neeves is a beautifully innocent St Clothilde (magically set against a decidedly Massiaenic organ backdrop). As for Jeremy Backhouse and his superb Vasari Singers, they excel even by their own high standards. The men evoke suitably violent Barbarians as they call for Christ’s death, the women provide a moment of absolute wonder as they sing to St Theresa, and the enitre choir moves from the passionate followers of Joan of Arc, through the gloriously triumphant (“Le Christ est encore”), and the miserably wretched (“J’ai faim”) to the luminously prayerful (“Saints, martyres, phalanges”).

The three motets which share the disc seem in comparison a trifle disappointing: Langlais’ “Festival Alleluia”, despite opening with great verve and spirit, overstays its welcome by a good sic minutes; Alain’s gentle “O Salutaris” is really little more than an exercise in Bach-style chorale writing; and, for all it’s stature as a 20th-century choral classic, Messiaen’s “O sacrum convivium” here lacks a sense of mystery. But that disappointment is only because the motets precede a work of extra-ordinary emotional impact and a performance of exceptional power.

Marc Rochester