So, another disc of
French Choral Music from the 20th
Century. Why should you buy this one,
as opposed, say, to the disc I reviewed
in January 2004 on Hänssler (SWR
Vocal ensemble of Stuttgart 93.055)?
That’s not an easy question to answer.
The choice may come down to repertoire.
The Debussy and Ravel are pretty much
standards in anthologies of this sort,
but the Hindemith is a rarity. Curious
to find him in this company but the
texts are in French. I am making my
first acquaintance with the music of
Jean Absil, a Belgium composer who was
principal of what is, at present, the
rather ramshackle building of the Belgian
Conservatoire in Brussels. His five
movement choral suite with animal poetry
by Apollinaire gets the disc off to
a strong and bright start. Poulenc is
always challenging but his choral music
is probably the best of him - he certainly
thought as much - and his church music
What about the presentation?
The booklet contains some quite lengthy
information about each composer as well
as the background to each piece and
a résumé of the texts.
There is an annoying and irrelevant
foreword entitled ‘In lieu of an introduction’.
It is very disappointing for me to have
to tell you that no texts are offered;
not even French ones, let alone translations.
I would in this case sacrifice any amount
of booklet writer’s opinions for the
So, now the crunch
– perhaps: the performances. No one
tackles this music without being good
so let’s begin by saying that this is
a clear and fresh-toned choir of excellent
quality. In the Ravel they are wonderful
at enunciating the complex and lengthy
texts, written incidentally, by the
composer himself. The tempi are certainly
never slack and they do not flinch from
a virtuoso challenge. In the first Chanson
of the Debussy at bar 14 I love the
way that the lower voices make much
more of the staccato markings than most
other choirs. This works really well.
I am less keen on the tuning in the
second piece. Such a pity that this
is Debussy’s only unaccompanied choral
Tuning is of course,
very important and is mostly very good.
The last chords of the first chanson
of the Ravel take some time to settle
and the contralto soloist in the second
of the Debussy seems, at first at least,
to be slightly under the notes. But
these moments are of little consequence
The Hindemith comes
off really well. Written in 1939 just
as he was contemplating how to cope
with life in Nazi Germany and having
just finished his wonderful ‘Nobilissima
Visione’, these Six Chansons are set
to French texts by Rilke a somewhat
surprising poet to find beside Hindemith’s
name. He sets them in a style inspired
by the great chanson composers of 16th
century France like, Sermisy and Le
Jeune but with some odd harmonic twists.
This is most original and attractive
Poulenc sets curiously
patriotic texts by Paul Eluard in ‘Un
soir de neige’ which he calls a (mini)
cantata. It was first performed after
the war. This is a rare outing for a
deeply satisfying piece with some superb
antiphonal choral effects.
In the better known
‘Sept Chansons’ Poulenc in turning to
a much more familiar poet in Guillaume
Apollinaire is able to find contrasting
texts and music more in line with the
language of the Monteverdi madrigals.
These formed the original inspiration.
They were commissioned from him by that
great musical entrepreneur, the Princess
de Polignac. The typical Poulencian
alternation of major and minor which
can make tuning in his music so tricky
is especially apparent in the opening
setting ‘La blanche neige’. For my taste,
in this piece and in the Ravel, more
bass is needed. You will need to turn
it up more than usual and then the balance
may not be quite right. The sopranos
can sometimes be too strident.
All in all I really
enjoyed this disc. But at less than
fifty-two minutes I do come away feeling
disappointed and short-changed.