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Francis POULENC (1899-1963)
Sacred Choral Music

Gloria (1959)
Salve Regina (1941)
Ave verum corpus (1952)
Exultate Deo (1941)
Litanies à la Vièrge Noire (1936)
Quatre motets pour un temps de pénitence (1938-39)
Quatre motets pour le temps de Noël (1951-52)
Donna Deam (soprano)
The Cambridge Singers
City of London Sinfonia/John Rutter
Recorded in the Great Hall of University College School, London, January 1988

The fact that Poulencís choral music contains some of his most inspired and genuinely moving writing has not been lost on the record companies. There are a number of excellent discs in the catalogue from, among others, The Sixteen (Virgin), Christ Church Cathedral Choir, Oxford (Nimbus), St. Johnís College, Cambridge (Decca Double) and Groupe Vocale de France (EMI). That said, the re-issue at mid-price of this superb collection from John Rutterís Cambridge Singers is something to be genuinely welcomed. Rutter really excels in this sort of repertory, and the tonal beauty of his crack choir makes for very satisfying listening.

As Rutterís own scholarly liner note points out, Poulenc himself considered this body of work to be as important as any in his entire output. In a famous letter he stated "I think I put the best and most authentic side of myself into my choral music". Of the works featured here, there is little doubt that the most enduringly popular will be the Gloria, which has by far the largest number of rivals in the catalogue. I must say I feel Rutterís account could live with the best of them. He makes the most of the grandly ceremonial opening, though some of the sheer swagger that Bernstein manages to convey (mid-price Sony) is missing. Nevertheless, this account has many strengths, and Rutter refuses to play to the gallery. Some of the spiky Stravinsky-style syncopations are slightly smoothed out, but that only helps to highlight the tender moments, of which there are many. The Domine Deus finds the soloist, Donna Deam, a shade warbly in the upper register (nerves perhaps?), but she shapes the words beautifully. The choir is on superb form; the sheer unanimity of tone in Laudamus te is exhilarating, and the orchestral support throughout is excellent.

Of the remaining items, I particularly enjoyed the Litanies à Vièrge Noire (Litanies of the Black Madonna), which contains some of Poulencís most intense writing. Again Stravinsky looms large, with startling dissonances allied to fairly plain, diatonic harmony. The result has a starkness that is both bleak and moving, and strikes me as more heartfelt than so much of his other, more flippant work.

The two sets of motets are included in the rival recordings, and are also top-drawer Poulenc. The Quatre motets pour un temps de pénitence have a dark, dramatic intensity that can be likened to the Spanish master Victoria who, Rutter tells us, was constantly in the composerís thoughts as he worked on the motets. The part writing is simple and elegant, with superbly controlled counterpoint and inspired climaxes, all well realised by Rutter and his choir. The Noël motets are equally inspired, if slightly lighter in vein. Poulencís great gift for melody comes really to the fore in these superbly crafted pieces; sample the Hodie Christus natus est, as good a setting of this famous text as you will hear.

All in all, an excellent achievement. The Gloria is well served on disc, but this version has merits that grow on one subtly with each hearing. In any case, the other items easily make the disc worth investigating. Choral fans will already know of Rutterís high standards, and this disc will not disappoint on any technical grounds. Recording is full and clear, with the suitably resonant acoustic well tamed by the engineers. Recommended.

Tony Haywood

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