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Hyperion Records

CDA67539 - Villette: Choral Music

Recording details: May 2005
Temple Church, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Jeremy Summerly
Engineered by Simon Eadon
Release date: March 2006
Total duration: 62 minutes 32 seconds

'Whether chant-inspired, leaning towards a jazz idiom or chromaticism, the music is an unusual hybrid. The Holst Singers are eloquent and beguiling under the thoughtful direction of Stephen Layton' (Choir & Organ)

'The Holst Singers create great clouds of texture, which surge, form, and melt before your ears … for a bag of musical bonbons à la violette, this disc can't be beaten' (BBC Music Magazine)

'The Holst Singers—Stephen Layton's 'other' great choir—is every bit as skilled, sonorous and sensitive as his better-known group, Polyphony. Very few conductors manage this sort of exquisite phrasing, subtle nuance, gleaming sound, and absolute control that you hear from any of Layton's choirs. Hyperion records them beautifully and offers its usual complete and classy booklet' (American Record Guide)

'This is simply gorgeous music which has not so much moments of sublime beauty as virtually no passages which aren't, both singly and cumulatively, utterly enchanting' (International Record Review)

'Shades of Messiaen, Duruflé, Gregorian chant and jazz tinge Villette's elegant, unpretentious motets, sensitively performed here' (Classic FM Magazine)

'The Holst Singers’ blend, diction, intonation, and ensemble are uniformly up there with the best, as is the engineering of the recording' (Fanfare, USA)

'If I was going to choose a record company to commit Villette's music to disc, then Hyperion would be my first choice and the team invovled in this production do not let composer or musicians down, capturing the mood so well … it is a cracking CD' (Cathedral Music)

'This recording offers the most comprehensive compilation of Villette's choral music in print. Layton's interpretation skillfully supports the composer's intent, especially in terms of text-music relationships. The Holst Singers' diversity of tone color, pristine intonation, exploration of dynamic range, and nuances of rhythmic flexibility are consistently excellent … Layton's balance of every tone in the twenty-part texture achieves an outstanding sonority, a highlight of the recording … I recommend this recording enthusiastically and without reservation' (Choral Guide)

Choral Music

This pioneering new recording—a showcase for the virtuoso talents of the Holst Singers—presents all fifteen of Villette’s unaccompanied choral works and his two motets for choir and organ.

Pierre Villette might best be regarded as a stylistic bridge between Debussy and Fauré on the one hand and Poulenc and Messiaen on the other. A world rich in the familiarities of Gregorian chant infuses much of his choral output, while ambitious chromaticisms and textural gestures create effects which are at once spiritual and sensuous. This is the music of private prayer set in the context of an incense-filled Gothic Über-Cathedral.

Under their long-standing director of music Stephen Layton, the Holst Singers have established themselves firmly at the top of the country’s league of chamber choirs. This new programme can only enhance their justly deserved reputation.

Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
Over the course of his life Pierre Villette produced around eighty pieces of music—mostly small-scale works for orchestra, chamber ensembles and choir. Although he was a contemporary of Pierre Boulez at the Conservatoire National Supérieure de Musique in Paris, Villette ploughed his own furrow when it came to composition. He eschewed the uncompromising modernity of much French twentieth-century music, drawing instead on early music, especially Gregorian chant, and the exotic textures and harmonies inherited from Poulenc and Messiaen. He loved the music of Fauré and Debussy and greatly admired Stravinsky, yet his musical language is unique—something Stephen Layton describes as both ‘spiritual and sensual’.

Villette was born in 1926 into a musical family. His mother was a competent pianist and he counted amateur musicians among his aunts and uncles. The main musical influence in his life, however, came from his father. Henri Villette ran a joinery business but he was also a composer, pianist, organist, violinist and violist who encouraged his son’s passion for music. From the tender age of six Villette fils sang in the choir of St Evode cathedral in Rouen, where he was introduced to Gregorian chant and music from a range of composers including Palestrina, Mozart and Franck. In his early teens he began playing the organ in a local church and such was his talent that at the age of fifteen he passed the entrance exam for the Paris conservatoire, with the help of the composer Maurice Duruflé. By the following year Villette had written his first complete work, a Marche fantaisiste for orchestra. But with France under Nazi occupation his early years of study were interrupted and Villette was obliged to join his family in Normandy.

With the liberation of Paris in 1944 Villette was eventually able to return to the conservatoire once again, where he studied composition with Henri Busser. The Ave verum and the gentle Salve regina date from this same year. In both motets Villette uses chromatic harmonies to draw out the meaning of the words, bringing an added piquancy to the moment where the text refers to death in the Ave verum and to tears in the Salve regina. The conclusion of the Ave verum is particularly intense with a hushed phrase for women’s voices echoed by the men and then followed by a dramatic outburst. At the very end the music comes to rest on an unresolved chord, a device that Villette chose time and time again to round off his choral works.

Another enforced interruption to Villette’s musical training came several years later in 1948 with the death of his father, and Villette returned home once again to run the family business. The strain took its toll on his health however and he underwent numerous operations before surgeons finally removed one of his lungs. He spent long periods in the Alps recuperating, but in spite of his fragile health he continued to compose. In 1954 Villette wrote the motet Salutation angélique for soprano, which exists in three versions—one with organ, the second with orchestra and the third with string orchestra. The beguiling opening provides no clue to the more animated middle section that follows. In the same year he also produced O salutaris hostia, a work notable for its jazzy harmonies. These found their full expression a year later in a piece for orchestra entitled Blues. Around the same time Villette composed the Hymne à la Vierge and dedicated it to his future wife, Josette. The hymn’s simple melody is reserved for the sopranos, while the other three voices have some interesting inner parts and chromatic inflections, particularly towards the end of the piece.

In 1957 Villette took up a job as head of the Conservatoire de Besançon, a post that began his long stint in academia. During his ten years there he wrote only a handful of works, of which four were for choir. In 1959 he composed the eight-part motet O sacrum convivium, a piece which shows the influence of Messiaen, whom he admired. The music at the words ‘mens impletur gratia’ could even be a nod towards Messiaen’s early motet of the same name, as the melody is very similar. Villette’s work wears its heart on its sleeve, its shimmering chords with added sixths and seconds particularly effective in creating a sensuous mood. Here the composer’s flexible approach to word-setting comes into play, with fifteen tempo changes indicated in a motet lasting less than four minutes. The Strophes polyphoniques pour le Veni Creator naturally require a similarly fluid approach to the text, alternating chant and response. The final ‘Amen’ is a rare example of true counterpoint in Villette’s choral music.

Villette did not, on the whole, compose to order, although he did receive a number of commissions throughout his creative life. He wrote music for personal expression and found inspiration largely in his strong faith, which probably explains why so much of his vocal music is religious. In 1959 he composed the motet Tu es Petrus to mark the enthronement of the Archbishop of Besançon. The work exists in three different arrangements: the version for choir and two organs is the original, but it was later orchestrated and there is also an arrangement, performed here, with just one organ. As one would expect, the music is stately, but the motet also contains a more tender interlude. The repetition of the words ‘Tu es Petrus’ provides a particularly rousing finale. There is nothing quite so robust in mood in the whole of Villette’s choral music. Adoro te, which dates from 1960, marks a return to more familiar territory, but still contains many of the lush harmonies typical of Villette’s music at this time. After Adoro te, Villette wrote no motets at all for twenty-three years, but he did compose two large-scale masses, one of which—the Messe en français—is yet to be published.

Villette was to hold only one other post in his life, that of director of the Conservatoire d’Aix-en-Provence where he stayed until his retirement in 1987. His students remember him as a very kind, likeable man who was passionate about music education: he presided over the expansion of the conservatoire and did a great deal to enhance musical life in Aix. Many of his works were premiered by his students, but Villette’s choral music has achieved greater recognition abroad largely through the efforts of British choirs. The earliest of these was the Worcester Cathedral Choir with their director Dr Donald Hunt, who took Villette’s music to an international public by recording and performing his motets in the mid-1970s. Hunt’s recordings attracted the composer’s attention and so began a lasting friendship. In 1983 Villette dedicated the motet Attende, Domine to Hunt and the choir. It is one of his most ambitious choral works, with a dark, anguished atmosphere as befits the penitential text. The motet begins with a descending whole-tone motif that recurs throughout, punctuating the adventurous sonorities that often begin in close harmony and expand and contract like a concertina.

In the same year Villette produced O magnum misterium, whose opening bars are in a similarly dark fashion to Attende, Domine, but on the whole the music is quite restrained. This piece shows Villette’s contemporary influences well: it begins in a gentle mood akin to his teacher Duruflé’s motet Tantum ergo, with a particularly tender moment introduced by the tenors when the beasts gather around the crib. Gradually the harmonies become more sensual as the piece nears its conclusion, approaching the sound-world of Messiaen’s O sacrum convivium—especially the way the sustained notes in the singers’ lower registers end on a glowing sixth chord.

When he retired from the conservatoire in Aix, Villette spoke of how much he looked forward to having more time to write music ‘to the glory of God’. The first motet to come out of this period was Inviolata, one of Villette’s most complex and difficult works. ‘It’s a very orchestral approach to the use of the choir’, says Stephen Layton. ‘At one point there are twenty parts going at once. Villette uses the different sections of the choirs to create colours in the same way other composers use different sections of the orchestra: we have sustained “string” chords from one choir accompanying “woodwind” melodies from another.’

Inviolata marks a high point of complexity in Villette’s motets. Not only is it texturally adventurous, it is harmonically complex too with block chords built of clashing tonalities contributing to its exotic sound world. After Inviolata in 1991 Villette employs a more simplified musical language in the remaining five motets. O quam amabilis es is a world away from the quasi-orchestral fabric of Inviolata; the sensual harmonies are still there in Villette’s use of added 7th and 9th chords and the soft dissonances created by suspensions, but the music is less intense in character. Notre Père d’Aix is simplicity itself; some unexpected turns of phrase intensify the mood and occasionally the music rises to forte, but in general this is a gentle, diatonic setting of the Lord’s Prayer. The Pentecostal motet O quam suavis est is dedicated to Hélène Guy, a music educator based in Aix, and her Ensemble Vocal de Provence. The piece looks to the rapt side of Messiaen’s early music once again, with its ethereal harmonies. Jesu, dulcis memoria shares with O quam suavis est a flowing approach to the musical line: the parts move more independently of one another than in Villette’s earlier vocal works. Occasional chromatic inflections in the vocal lines add an element of surprise. In his final motet, Panis angelicus, Villette has stripped the music down to the bone, using harmonic colour judiciously to highlight his plea for God to lead the way. Returning as the music does to the clarity of the opening makes this all the more poignant.

The phrase ‘no prophet is accepted in his own country’ is particularly apt in Villette’s case. His music’s sensual quality and approachable idiom have found favour with choirs and audiences alike in such diverse countries as the United States, Japan and Germany, and especially in the United Kingdom. The Hymne à la Vierge was once included in the Service of Nine Lessons and Carols at King’s College, Cambridge, much to the composer’s delight. But as yet, few choirs in France perform his music, something that his widow Josette believes left Villette feeling a little disappointed. ‘I think religious music has more hold abroad than here in France. Cathedral choirs are thin on the ground these days, and as he was not based in Paris he did not have the kind of exposure a composer needed at the time to be well known in France’, she says. ‘But it meant a lot to him to know that his music was performed elsewhere. This recording would please him very much. And while it is a shame that he is no longer here to know this joy, I feel sure he is looking down from heaven and observing with pride.’

Fiona Clampin © 2006

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