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French Choral Music
Jean ABSIL (1893-1974) Bestiaire - Cinq petite pièces pour quatuor vocal mixte Op 58 (1944) [7.07]
Francis POULENC (1899-1963) Sept Chansons pour choeur mixte a capella (1936) [14.57]; Un Soir de Neige - Petite cantata de chamber pour six voix mixtes (1944) [7.16]
Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937) Trois Chansons (1917) [7.15]
Claude DEBUSSY (1864-1918) Trois Chansons de Charles d’Orléans (1898/1908) [6.33]
Paul HINDEMITH (1895-1963) Six Chansons (1939) [8.24]
Europa Chor Akademie/Sylvain Cambreling
rec. Radio Bremen, Sendesaal, 4-5 February 2005
CAPRICCIO 67 151 [51.31]

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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 especially so.

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 sung words.

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 work.

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 overall.

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 music.

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.

Gary Higginson


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