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Francis POULENC (1899-1963)
Gloria (1961) [24:04]
Concerto for Organ, Strings and Timpani (1938) [25:07]
Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)
Symphony of Psalms (1930) [21:29]
Sylvia McNair (soprano), Michael Murray (organ), Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus/Robert Shaw
Recorded in the Cathedral of Saint Philip, Atlanta, Georgia, May 20th 1982 (Concerto), Symphony Hall, Atlanta, Georgia, May 20th 1982 and May 2nd 1983 (Gloria and Symphony)
TELARC CD 80643 [70:56]


Here is yet another superb re-issue of recordings by Robert Shaw, who died in 1999. Shaw was one of the supreme choral conductors of the 20th century. One distinguishing feature of a great interpreter is the ability to change the very nature of the sound produced to match the stylistic requirements of the music. Well, I have reviewed recently recordings by Shaw of Britten, Mozart and Beethoven. Here he is now in masterpieces by Stravinsky and Poulenc, and the most striking thing is the drier, less opulent sound Shaw was able to draw from his wonderful Atlanta Chorus.

Indeed, this version of the Poulenc Gloria made me fall in love with this gorgeous piece again ... it’s happened several times! Shaw has an unerring feel for tempo, everything is in its place, and he avoids too much self-indulgence in the admittedly intensely sensuous slower sections. Sylvia McNair is an ideal soloist, secure in intonation, silvery-pure in tone.

The great advantage in Shaw’s approach is that the stylistic link from the Stravinsky of 1930 to the Poulenc of thirty years later is felt strongly, though of course the fundamental aesthetic of the two men was, in truth, miles apart. I still cherish the Bernstein interpretation from the 1970s, yet the recorded sound is so much better here that I have to say that this version is preferable – though I hasten to add that one cannot reckon without Stravinsky’s own recordings.

Between the two choral pieces comes a very fine reading of the Poulenc Organ Concerto, perhaps the composer’s most characteristic masterpiece. Though I think I discern (reading between the confusing lines of the recording details) that this is an artificial recording – i.e. with organ and orchestra in different buildings – it nevertheless works very well, though there may be listeners who will find Shaw’s tempi for some of the more expressive sections a little too slow. Michael Murray is a commanding organ soloist.

Gwyn Parry-Jones


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