Album Review

Posted: Sunday 7th December 2014
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De Profundis, Miserere & Requiem – Musicweb International

I’m sorry to say it but these days my heart usually sinks when I receive a disc that includes Allegri’s Miserere. I’m sure it’s an irrational and unfair prejudice on my part but I find the piece repetitive and it’s definitely over-exposed on CD. However, there are two reasons for making an exception here and welcoming its inclusion on this new disc by the Vasari Singers. The first is that it’s very well sung. The second is that’s it’s an integral part of an especially well thought-out programme. Jeremy Backhouse can be seen talking about the programme and the links between some of the works and composers by clicking here.

This is a programme of connections, one of which is the commissioning, by Harry Christophers and The Sixteen, of a setting of the Miserere by James MacMillan specifically to complement the Allegri setting. MacMillan succeeds brilliantly in fulfilling the request for his piece to be complementary and it’s very good to hear the two settings side by side, as here. Allegri uses three different choral strands in his setting: the full choir, plainchant verses sung by one or more male voices, and a distant semi-chorus. Some recent recordings I’ve heard opt to have the chanted passages sung by a lone male cantor and that works very well, providing extra contrast. Jeremy Backhouse adopts the more usual approach and has a group of men singing these verses: they do so with impressive unanimity. The semi-chorus is ideally distanced and very impressive they are. The top soprano ornaments some of the phrases. She does so tastefully and these decorations add variety. This is a very successful performance.

James MacMillan didn’t seek to replicate Allegri’s three-strand approach – wisely, I think; that would have risked pastiche. However, he does vary his choral textures most resourcefully during the setting. His piece is expertly imagined for the voices and the music is very responsive to the sentiments expressed in the text. I like very much the way that several times MacMillan writes passages that remind us of Allegri’s setting – yet he writes these sections without compromising his own compositional voice. This is a fine homage to the earlier setting and the Vasari Singers do it very well indeed.

The Allegri and MacMillan pieces are linked, albeit across the centuries. There’s a link also – and one that is much closer in time – between the pieces by Pizzetti and Malipiero that open the programme. They had been good friends but had fallen out – the fault lay with Pizzetti, it seems. In 1937 they patched up their quarrel and, as a gesture of reconciliation, they agreed both of them would write a setting of the De Profundis, each dedicating his piece to the other. Malipiero composed his eloquent setting for a solo baritone accompanied by viola and piano. In this performance an organ is used instead of a piano and, quite honestly, I find it hard to imagine that a piano would be preferable, given the nature of the music and the organ’s sustaining power. Here the baritone is Matthew Wood, a member of the Vasari Singers. He’s very impressive; his voice is well-focused and pleasing in tone and his diction is admirably clear. I enjoyed listening to him very much and the husky tone of Jon Thorne’s viola makes a very attractive addition to the texture. The other interesting feature of the accompaniment is an optional part for bass drum. It’s a very discreet part but Daniel Burges, a member of the choir, gauges the part perfectly so that it adds an unexpected colouring to the piece without intruding.

Pizzetti’s setting, for which he uses a shorter and somewhat different version of the text, is for seven-part unaccompanied choir. It’s very beautiful and Jeremy Backhouse and his singers do it full justice. We should divert for a moment from Pizzetti’s music to consider the small piece by Puccini, which I don’t recall hearing before. It was composed in 1905 to mark the fourth anniversary of the death of Verdi. It’s for chorus accompanied by viola and organ. The viola adds a plangent tone to the texture, which is most effective. It’s a short and largely unassuming piece and, in a programme of links, it merits its place because the second time the piece was heard was at a 1924 memorial service for Puccini at which Pizzetti delivered the eulogy.

It’s Pizzetti who provides the most substantial work on this disc in the shape of his 1922 Requiem for unaccompanied choir. This very beautiful piece is something of a rarity in performance though it’s been recorded at least once before. That recording is a superb Hyperion version by the Choir of Westminster Cathedral and James O’Donnell, made as long ago as 1997 (CDA67017). I don’t see that Hyperion disc as a competitor to this new Naxos recording; rather, the two CDs are complementary. One reason is that the programmes differ: The Westminster Choir, who also include Pizzetti’s De Profundis, offer music by Frank Martin as the remainder of their programme. The other, more important factor is that the two choirs offer very different – and equally valid – listening experiences. The Westminster choir is all-male with trebles on the top-line and they’re recorded in the spacious acoustic of Westminster Cathedral. So by listening to them and to the Vasari Singers we can get two nicely contrasting views of Pizzetti’s eloquent Requiem.

There is a pronounced flavour of plainchant in the music and that’s evident right from the start of the Introit. From the basses’ chant-like opening phrases the music soon flowers into lovely polyphony, which is beautifully sung here, the sopranos radiant. There’s a full setting of the Dies Irae and the tone of a lot of the music may come as a surprise. The opening, which is again chant-inspired, is very subdued, basses and altos singing the text while the tenors and sopranos float wordless melismas over the melody. These melismatic phrases recur several times during this movement, which is by some distance the longest in the work. There are several impassioned outbursts when the words justify such treatment but the prevailing mood is that of a prayer for forgiveness. The concluding lines, ‘Pie Jesu Domine, dona eis requiem. Amen’, are set to the most gentle music imaginable. This deeply affecting though brief passage is tenderly sung.

Pizzetti divides his choir into three four-part groups – one female, two male – for the Sanctus. This is memorable, the complex textures creating a ‘buzz’ of sound. The ‘Hosannas’ are ecstatic. The music for the Agnus Dei is texturally much simpler; it’s a gently prayerful setting which the Vasaris sing with great sensitivity. Unlike, say, Fauré or Duruflé, Pizzetti chooses to end not with a setting of In Paradisum but with Libera me. This predominantly dark text is marked to be sung ‘with profound fervour’. This is troubled, unsettled music though there is a serenely beautiful passage at the words ‘Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine, et lux perpetua luceat eis.’ The very end of the work sets words about God judging the world by fire; a far cry, indeed, from the vision of the angels leading the departed soul into Paradise with which a number of Requiems conclude.

Pizzetti’s Requiem is a work of great beauty and sincerity and it deserves to be far better known than it is. This sensitive and expertly sung performance by the Vasari Singers can only help its cause.

Over the years I’ve heard quite a number of recordings by this choir and I’ve been consistently impressed. However, I fancy this disc may be just about the best thing they’ve ever done. A thoughtfully conceived and interesting programme has been flawlessly executed. The singing not only gives consistent pleasure but also prompts admiration. The recording has been produced by Adrian Peacock and engineered by Will Brown; they have achieved excellent results. Finally, Brenda Moore’s notes are very good indeed. I hope it will not be long before the next Vasari Singers disc and in the meantime I urge you to try this one, especially if you don’t know the Pizzetti Requiem – or even if you do.

John Quinn
Musicweb International