As the forces of harmonic progress wrenched much of 20th-century music away from tonality, plenty of music-makers remained behind, not merely because of aesthetic disagreements about the sound of newer work, but because the very abandonment of traditional harmony made it much harder for the non-professional to participate in the music of their own time. These groups continue to be served by composers who have spoken with personal lyrical voices using tools and procedures that had been mainstream many decades before. I’m thinking not so much of Shostakovich or Britten in this respect, but of someone like Gerald Finzi, a composer of admittedly modest gifts and limited range who nevertheless created a handful of works that have wide appeal (I consider him a guilty pleasure).
On Saturday night the Spectrum Singers introduced to Boston audiences a work that seems to have similar aspirations, the 1963 Requiem of Alfred Desenclos (1917-1971). If you’ve never heard of Desenclos, you are hardly alone. Music Director John Ehrlich’s program notes provide only a sketchy outline of a life—a Prix de Rome won in 1942, a choirmaster post in Paris—and Ehrlich is relying mostly on information provided by David Trendell in the CD leaflet in the only recording of the work on Delphian Records. The Requiem weaves a fabric of gauzy, suspended harmonies and straightforward lyric melodies that claims a kinship with those of Duruflé and Fauré. Its considerable beauty diffuses throughout the work, rarely being concentrated in any memorable moment. Hours later the only music I could call to mind was the opening phrase, perhaps because it reappeared verbatim when the text “Requiem aeternam” returned in later movements. My notes do recall a “aching, flatted” melody in the Offertoire, “keening, interwined” lines in the Pie Jesu, and a phrase that impressed me as “stately and flowing” in the Libera me. Spectrum did lovely work with this material; their sound is round and smooth, lithe rather than forceful, subtle rather than spectacular. Originally for chorus and orchestra, was offered using Desenclos’s own reduction for organ, which was understated and secondary to the voices; Justin Thomas Blackwell’s playing was appropriately restrained and deferential. Desenclos does employ a vocal quartet, here sung by eight different individuals, but the soloists function mostly as a textural variation; there’s little drama in this Requiem. Of the deservedly better known examples it can be noted that: Britten’s War Requiem had been debuted a year earlier; Ligeti began work on his in the same year. But their very ambition and complexity keeps them at arm’s length: Desenclos’s may well have a future in places where its familiarity and modesty constitute virtues.
Preceding the Desenclos came a handful of works that might have been “influences” on the composer. Duruflé’s Meditation for organ solo from c. 1964 channeled quasi-improvised noodling that suddenly arrived at its ending, and Fauré’s obscure (and tentatively attributed) Benedictus from 1880 felt like amputated first section of a longer work. Justin Thomas Blackwell did what he could with the those, but had more success with Olivier Messiaen’s Banquet Celeste (1928), an early essay in foreboding and ecstatic atmosphere, to which he brought an intense brooding. Messiaen was also represented in a cool and controlled reading of O Sacrum Convivium! from 1937. Claiming Messiaen as an influence on Desenclos is something of a long-shot. The latter’s harmonic fuzziness might be traced these early works, but by 1963 Messiaen had moved on to universes un-glimpsed by the other. Duruflé is a more plausible model; he his Quatre Motets sur des Thèmes Grégoriens (1960), each sounded like polished, confident, if rather conservative, takes on well-known Latin sacred texts (“Ubi caritas”, “Tota pulchra es”, “Tu es Petrus”, “Tantum ergo”).
Fauré, whose early work Cantique de Jean Racine (1865) received a brilliant, pellucid interpretation from the Singers, probably stole the show. Giving themselves over to the generous acoustic of the First Church in Cambridge, and singing in French rather than Latin, they produced their most passionate outpourings of the evening, making clear why one might have the urge to find “more like this.”