Maurice Duruflé (1902-86) and Olivier Messiaen (1908-92) first met as pupils of Dukas at the Paris Conservatoire. Both went on to become virtuoso organists in the French tradition, holding long-term posts in Paris churches. Yet how differently they turned out as composers. Compared to Messiaen's vastly idiosyncratic and colourful oeuvre, Duruflé's publication of a mere dozen carefully crafted scores would surely seem a minor achievement.
But just once, in his Requiem, Op 9 (1947), he achieved a perfection of ends and means, and depth of human feeling arguably beyond anything in Messiaen's output. The imaginative juxtaposition of Duruflé's masterpiece with Messiaen's exotic Trois petites liturgies de la Présence Divine (1943) in this imaginative BBC/Barbican concert could hardly have been more striking.
Messiaen wrote his own free-verse text - a melange of sacred and erotic imagery. His setting for women's choir, strings and percussion, plus obligato piano and ondes Martenot to add electronic swoonings, is an extraordinary mix of birdsong and tribal dance rhythms with sugary French harmony. Yet with Steven Osborne glittering at the piano, Cynthia Millar soulful on the ondes and Donald Runnicles pacing the whole 35 minutes with immaculate timing, the visionary vividness of it all was hugely enjoyed.
After this, the gentle plainsong contours of the Duruflé, sustained on Fauré-like harmonies, revealed a composer unquestioningly at one with his tradition. Yet, as the Requiem unfolds, Duruflé's individuality duly emerges. Compared to the minimally varied repetitiousness of Messiaen, for instance, he is tellingly concise. It takes him only a few bars to build a texture of overwhelming power in his "Sanctus" or to evoke the illimitable calm of his "In paradisum".
Yet there is never a suspicion of short windedness: the brief soprano and baritone solos may comprise only a few phrases each, but sung, as here, with the compassion of Sarah Connolly and the eloquence of Christopher Maltman, they have the impact of substantial numbers. And such is Duruflé's skill, that a work one would have thought cried out for a resonant church acoustic sounded no less sonorous and full in the dryness of the Barbican, as potently realised by the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, under Runnicles' measured sway.
Do not miss the Radio 3 relay of this moving concert on Wednesday.Reuse content