Wednesday, 19 September 2012

Milford, Duruflé Requiem Aeternam - Stone Records

At last, a recording of Robin Milford's Mass for Five Voices op 84 from Stone Records, specialists in British repertoire. Robin Milford (1903-1959) was Oxford born and bred, so it's fitting that this major new recording comes from the Choir of Somerville College, Oxford, conducted by David Crown. Milford would have been thrilled, though in his day, Somerville was all-female. While Somerville doesn't have the cachet of the bigger colleges, its singers are enthusiastic, and their committment infuses this recording with great character. 

Milford is best known for his music for small ensemble, like Fishing by Moonlight (op 96) issued by Hyperion nine years ago, so Stone Records' recording is an important development. Mass for Five Voices (1945-7) was originally titled "Mass for Christmas Morning" but there's nothing specially Christmassy about it other than a general sense of joy. "I'm so glad that you enjoyed my Mass", wrote the composer to a friend, "for I consider it the best thing I've ever done, and I'm very pleased indeed that you felt the work was 'truly religious' rather than 'churchy'" . The voices are SATB choir with organ, so the resemblance to church tradition is clear, but Milford's approach is ecstatic. In Gloria in excelsis, the voices shine. "Miserere nobis" hardly seems relevant, a final "Gloria in excelsis" reaffirms the celebratory.mood.  Even the solemnity of the Credo reflects joy, and when the organ joins in, it's as if it were singing, not preaching.

The Somerville voices sound so fresh and pure that one can understand why Milford thought of Christmas and presumably angels and happiness. There's nothing trite about this. Milford's life was plagued by tragedy, including the sudden death of his 5 year old son.  He had breakdowns, received ECT and attempted suicide, and finally ended his life with an overdose.  Even in our modern, more tolerant times, such things are painful. In Milford's era of repressed Stiff Upper Lip, he must have suffered. So the joy in Mass for Five Voices shines all the more when we reflect from whence it came.

The Somerville College Choir are joined by soloists Christine Rice and Mark Stone for Maurice Duruflé's Requiem op 9 (1947). making this recording of interest even in a crowded market. Rice and Gilchrist communicate sincerity. Duruflé's Requiem is duly famous, and its use of  monastic chant sources give it timeless grandeur. Yet, as James Percval writes, "in the light of the socially-traumatic experience of World Wars", Duruflés Requiem "very much belongs to the twentieth century". Listen to Christine Rice in this Pie Jesu, the stillness in her voice garlanded by cello (Guy Johnston) and organ (Tristan Mitchard). A protracted single organ announces the Libera me. When Stone sings "tremens factus sum ego", he sings with such directness that his words feel personal and heartfelt. This Requiem was recorded in the chapel at Douai Abbey, where the acoustic favours intimacy.

Duruflé's Requiem and Milford's Mass for Five Voices were written in the same post-war period., but are, of course very different. But heard together, we can appreciate the humanity they have in common. This recording is a milestone for Milford, but also a showcase for the Oxford college choir tradition, created afresh by the Somerville College Choir. It seems odd to call a CD of Masses a "hit", but this one is ! For more details, please see the Stone Records site HERE.

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