> POULENC Stabat Mater DVD [GPJ]: Classical CD Reviews- Jun2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Francis POULENC (1899-1963)
Stabat Mater
Litanies à la Vierge Noire
Quatre Motets pour un temps de pénitence

Judith Howarth, soprano
The Choirs of Gonville and Caius Colleges, Cambridge
BBC Philharmonic Orchestra
Conductors Christopher Robinson (Stabat Mater), Geoffrey Webster (Litanies), Timothy Brown (Motets)
DVD, recorded St.Wulfram’s Church, Grantham, UK (Stabat Mater) and Jesus College Cambridge UK (Litanies and Motets) 1996(?)


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In the Summer of 1936, Poulenc learned of the tragic death of his friend and colleague, Pierre-Octave Ferroud, a brilliantly talented young composer, in a horrific car accident in Hungary. Poulenc was deeply affected by this; it led him to make a pilgrimage to the church at Rocamadour in central France, where there is a famed statue of a Black Virgin. As well as signalling a return to the religion of his youth, these experiences gave rise to a series of moving sacred choral works, commencing with the Litanies à la Vierge Noire (Litanies to the Black Virgin) of 1939, the Quatre Motets pour un temps de pénitence (Four motets for a time of penitence) of the same year, and culminating in the Stabat Mater of 1950. This remarkably fine DVD from the BBC is devoted to these works and their background.

This is an excellent example of what DVD can do. We have here a very complete package; three filmed performances, a highly impressive ‘virtual visit’ to Rocamadour, and a discussion of Marian symbolism, linking it to Poulenc and his work. The performances themselves are very fine; the combined choirs of Clare and Gonville and Caius Colleges, Cambridge (mixed, not all-male of course) are disciplined and musical, and produce wonderfully clear, precise tone. Quite why there are three different conductors for the three works I have no idea, but no doubt there is a good reason! The soprano soloist in the Stabat Mater, Judith Howarth, is superb. She sings with majestic simplicity, and with glorious soaring tone in the Paradisi Gloria section. Poulenc fans will love the ending; so typical of the composer to finish the work on an unresolved dissonance (dominant 7th if you’re interested!).

The Stabat Mater has been recorded at St. Wulfram’s Church, Grantham, which is an ideal setting. The filming seems to me to be very well done; so often, producers go overboard on the visuals, ending up with a fussy presentation which does nothing for the music. The director here. one Ferenc van Damme, has resisted the temptation, and the production is quite simple, the camera dwelling on different performers much as the eye will do in a concert. There are one or two of the inevitable ‘cut-aways’ to flickering candles etc., but this is not overdone.

The smaller works, the Litanies and the Motets also receive sensitive, highly accomplished performances, though I confess I prefer the Litanies in the setting for strings and timpani rather than organ. There are some very well taken solos from the choir in the Motets, too, which are restrained and superbly imaginative settings.

The accompanying items are well worth their place here. The virtual visit to Rocamadour is accompanied by specially composed music by James Whitbourn, and appropriately numinous it is, too. We are taken up many of the 216 steps, into the chapel itself, and finally to a contemplation of the simple wooden statue which was the source of so much solace and inspiration to Poulenc. The short documentary that follows is about the phenomenon of the Black Madonnas that are found in so many places throughout the world, and the two experts, one British, one American, are fascinating on the symbolism that surrounds these figures, and their relationship to Poulenc’s experiences and, hence, his music.

This issue would obviously make an excellent educational resource for schools and colleges. But it is much more than that, a moving, compelling document regarding some of this unique composer’s finest music.

Gwyn Parry-Jones

A moving, compelling document regarding some of this unique composer’s finest music. … see Full Review

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