The divine discontent of Duruflé

Maurice Duruflé

Houston Chamber Choir was formed in 1995 by its conductor, Robert Simpson, who is director of music at the Episcopal Christ Church Cathedral in the city. It is one of the most admired chamber choirs in the United States, with pioneering original instrument performances, international appearances, and a repertoire from the English Renaissance to Duke Ellington and contemporary composers (especially those from Houston).

Maurice Duruflé (1902-86) was for many years organist titulaire at the church of Saint-Étienne-du-Mont in Paris, just down from the Panthéon. With its spun-sugar steps and screen, and the magnificent 18th-century organ case, the church remains a uniquely beautiful central Parisian place of devotion. And Duruflé, with only a small number of compositions, enhanced devotion through music with a kind of sumptuous austerity.

Often described as a perfectionist, Duruflé was really a dissatisfactionist.

He was not looking for perfection as he knew that was only God’s. But his persistent revisions and rejections arose from a sense of failing to achieve even his own best. Yet what he did write leaves the listener deeply moved.

Plainsong lies at the heart of his choral music. It provides the principal melodies of Duruflé’s work but also plainsong’s flexibility, its expressive elongations and melismata, define the whole feel and fabric of his writing.

Most obviously, this is true of the celebrated Requiem, Op 9, published in its first version in 1948. That work, as this recording beautifully demonstrates, takes one from an almost operatic richness (Cecilia Duarte is the perfectly judged soloist in the Pie Jesu matched with some lovely cello playing from Norman Fischer) to the nearly overwhelming.

The Libera me, with its commanding organ part and drama, does not give us anything like Verdi’s terror of death in his tormented Requiem (1874). It offers, rather, Duruflé’s apprehension of divine judgment as awe-inspiring.

The miniatures – the four motets on Gregorian themes for unaccompanied choir, Op 10 – are exquisite.

And they are eloquently sung here with balanced blend. The Mass Cum Jubilo for male voices is not as often heard as the Requiem, but full of interest and expression.

Houston Chamber Choir is remarkably good in this recording: the purity of the soprano line is especially worth noticing. And the Frenchness of the disc is enhanced by the Fisk-Rosales instrument at the Edythe Bates Old Recital Hall, Rice University, designed with the great French organ builders Cliquot and, particularly, Cavaillé-Coll in mind.

It could be Paris …

Francis O’Gorman was organ scholar of his college in Oxford and remains an active musician. He is Saintsbury Professor of English Literature at the University of Edinburgh and tweets at @francis_ogorman