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EXPLORING MUSIC: Wondrous/Faure & Bernstein

The MHS Review 397 VOL. 12, NO. 1 • 1988

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Robert Maxwell Stern


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I'm always confused when I receive a recor­ding which features works by more than one composer. The problem is where to file the thing (and this is one recording which I do not want to misplace). Sometimes this pro­blem can be solved by filing by conductor, but in this case I noticed that the recording was published originally in Great Britain to exploit the remarkable talents of the young treble Aled Jones. Master Jones has of late received great notoriety as the subject of a cable TV documentary named "Treble"; and a gala Christmas concert, "Carols for Christmas," also on cable TV, starred the young Welshman. So, file this recording under J.

It would seem at first glance that the pair­ing of Faure with Bernstein is a most unlike­ly one, but in certain respects they are somewhat similar. Both have composed upon religious themes that reveal faith in things divine--not necessarily for congregational worship, but as personal communions with God. Needless to say, their compositional styles are most different from one another: Bernstein extroverted and reflective of the anxious age in which he lives and Faure most reserved and understated, perhaps as a reac­tion against the grand and full-blown gestures of Wagner and Berlioz.

The Requiem Mass by Faure was written in 1887 as a dedication to the memory of his father. Restraint and subtlety are the earmarks of Faure's music, much as reticence and discretion marked his personal life. While he enjoyed the respect of those in France who knew his work, he did not become widely known outside his native country during his lifetime until singers of his chansons, such as Maggie Teytc, began to concertize his material internationally.

Be that as it may. Faure's originality in har­monic construction assured him a most cer­tain place among the late-19th century com­posers. The Requiem is scored for soprano and baritone soloists, SATB chorus. small or­chestra (sans oboes). and harp. It commits the violins to a rather spare role. They appear not at all in the first movement and only occa­sionally in sequential segments. Consequently a subdued and restricted orchestral color is characteristic throughout.

The composer has eschewed any attempt at dramatization. concentrating instead on an atmosphere of serenity and spiritual meditation. The second movement, the "Dies Irae" traditional to any Requiem (and the sock 'em section in the Mozart, Berlioz, and Verdi Re­quiems) wasn't set by Faure-perhaps because he was unwilling (some say unable) to write in the grandiose manner demanded by the text; besides, such writing would prove most incongruous to the rest of the piece. What is most important is that the listener must become aware of the harmonic subtlety, ex­pressive variety, and pronounced simplicity which make the Requiem as a whole a work of sheer beauty.

Leonard Bernstein, whose arms have never been too short to box with God, came to write Chichester Psalms by commission of the Very Reverend Walter Hussey, Dean of Chichester, for the 1965 installment of the an­nual Chichester Southern Cathedrals Summer Music Festival. The Psalms came directly after Bernstein's Symphony no. 3, "Kaddish" (1963), which is also a religious piece, but a hybrid of symphony, oratorio, and drama. In "Kaddish," the composer relates to God as an equal-as one who should be consoled His many crimes against man: "O Holy Father, angry, wrinkled old Majesty: I want to pray ... Amen. Did You hear that?" The text runs along those lines throughout, or­chestrated in tbe manner of atonality.

In Chichester Psalms we discover a Berns­tein who is far more at ease with himself and his Creator. There is no railing against God bere, and the musical coloration is a picture of sober tonality. Indeed there are some fascinating metric values of fives and sevens, but this is a cantata of praise and sanctity. The Bernstein whose anger and confusion lock­ed horns with the Deity has certainly been replaced by Lenny, the young boy who has not been scarred by the blows of life. He wrote: "These psalms are a simple and modest affair. / Tonal and tuneful and somewhat square, / Certain to sicken a stout John Cager / With its tonics and triads in E-flat major."

Aled Jones is joined by baritone Stephen Roberts and the forces of the Royal Philhar­monic Orchestra and London Symphony Chorus expertly conducted by Richard Hickox.

... On second thought. file this one under W for wondrous.

Review of Gabriel Faure Requiem. Op. 48 & Leonard Bernstein Chichester Psalms page 47

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