Musica Deo Sacra – Spiritual Duruflé and a Remarkable Achievement

08/08/2016

Spiritual Duruflé and a Remarkable Achievement – Musica Deo Sacra / David Ireson (conductor) at Tewkesbury Abbey August 1st to 7th

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A few months ago I reviewed a performance of Duruflé’s Requiem for a local newspaper which used the version for orchestra, organ and a largish choir. Although the singing was competent, as was the orchestral playing, I came away feeling that I should have been more affected by the music that I actually was.

However, I am far more enthusiastic about my latest encounter with Duruflé’s work. This was in the version for organ and chamber choir, with a contribution from the cello, and given within a liturgical setting as part of the annual Musica Deo Sacra week in Tewkesbury Abbey attended by a congregation rather than an audience. So one had a few moments of preparation as the choir processed to the choir stalls and a short solemn organ introduction from Paul Carr. After that the voices of the trebles floated above the accompaniment in the Introitus to be joined later by the whole choir. Prayers and a reading from Revelation were followed by the Pie Jesu for soloist and organ with a haunting cello obbligato (played by Juliet Tomlinson) which imbued the words with a feeling of calm and sublimity.

After the account of the raising of Lazarus and prayers for the faithful departed the singing of Lux aeterna by the trebles brought hope to the proceedings while a repeat of Requiem aeternam for full choir on a lower register offered a measure of consolation. Duruflé’s interest in Gregorian chant was particularly evident in the Offertorium, until suddenly the mood changed, the music became more dramatic and dissonant as the choir called out for delivery from the “pains of hell, the depths of the pit and the lion’s mouth”.

Before communion the Agnus dei solo was taken up by the men singers rising to an increasingly fervent Dona eis requiem. The pleas for salvation became more pronounced in the Libera me sung during communion in which the fearsome Day of Wrath once more dominates the scene, diminishing gradually to a quiet prayer. After the Dismissal the vision of angels leading the soul upward was beautifully expressed by the trebles in In Paradisum which concluded on a positive note with the Chorus angelorum.

Like Fauré’s Requiem on which Duruflé modelled his work the music is more personal and less public than in other requiems, such as Verdi’s, which is why it succeeded better in the liturgical context than in a concert hall. Credit for this is due to the professionalism and sensibility of the Musica Deo Sacra singers directed by David Ireson.

David was one of the original members of the choir who first came to Tewkesbury Abbey in 1969 and took over as MDS’s conductor in 1978 remaining in this position until now – a truly remarkable achievement. So it was fitting that at the Solemn Evensong and Benediction of the final evening he should be recognised for his long service to music in the Abbey. Here the Bishop of Gloucester, the Rt Revd Rachel Treweek (England’s first woman diocesan bishop) performed a ceremony admitting him to the prestigious Company of St Kyneburga. (St Kyneburga was the Abbess of the first (mixed) religious community at what is now Gloucester Cathedral in the eighth century, and the recently created Company named after her honours people who have developed and enriched church life in the Gloucester diocese.)

The final Evensong of the week was not without its highlights including a newly commissioned setting of Cardinal Newman’s O Lord, support us all the day long by Andrew Parnell sung a capella. Stanford’s settings of the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis impressed with their clarity of expression, while Edward Barstow’s anthem Blessed City, heavenly Salem was stunning in its magnificence aided by some tremendous organ playing from Paul Ayres.

Next year Musica Deo Sacra will be at Tewkesbury Abbey from Monday 31 July to Sunday 6 August.

Roger Jones

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