Francis POULENC (1899-1963) Stabat Mater (1950)* [27:39]
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897) Fünf Gesänge, Op. 104 (1886-8) [12:17]
*Claudia Barainsky (soprano)
*Nordwestdeutsche Philharmonie/Joshard Daus
rec. *6 November, 2007, Grosser Saal, Philharmonie, Berlin; 22-24 September 2008, Fuggerschloss, Kirchheim and Allianzsaal, Kloster Benediktbeuern, Benediktbeuern.
Original texts (Latin and German) included
Bonus DVD: ‘Musik verbindet’ - Joshard Daus and EuropaChorAkademie; Making of EuropaChor Akademie; Making of Berlioz – L’Enfance du Christ. NTSC/16:9 Stereo
GLOR CLASSICS GC08091 [1 CD 40:06 + 1 DVD]

Poulenc’s Stabat Mater is a fine piece though it’s not nearly so often performed as his Gloria and recordings are infrequent. So I was glad when this new recording, the product of a live performance, arrived for review. However, despite the good showing that the EuropaChorAkademie makes in both works – and they also receive decent orchestral support in the Poulenc – there are several factors that make it hard to recommend this disc.

A key failing of this release is the niggardly playing time. Indeed, in all the years that I’ve been reviewing CDs for MusicWeb International I can’t recall an instance of shorter playing time. Nowadays to offer a CD that has just about forty minutes playing time, including applause, is completely unacceptable in my book. The record label may well point to the so-called “bonus” DVD in mitigation but that would be a specious justification. In fact, the DVD contains three short documentary films about the choir, which are, in effect, ‘infommercials’, promoting their recordings and this pretty shameless plugging is topped off by what is an overt commercial for a separate DVD of Placido Domingo conducting them in Verdi’s Requiem. I can’t imagine anyone wanting to view any of this content more than once.

Returning to the CD, the performances are perfectly acceptable. I’m not sure why the set of five late Brahms part songs was chosen to partner the Poulenc work as they don’t seem to me to have a great deal in common. That said, they’re fine pieces and the choir, which is adept, well trained and well balanced, does them well.

The Poulenc Stabat Mater is cast in twelve short sections – it’s effectively a set of miniatures. It’s not as immediately attractive a work as his Gloria but, arguably, the music plumbs greater depths. It contains some fine and expressive choral writing, all of which is well delivered here, and the orchestration is typical of Poulenc in its piquancy. Three of the movements, the sixth, tenth and twelfth, include an important part for a solo soprano and here, I’m afraid, we come up against another drawback to this release. The soprano part is frequently demanding in its tessitura but, even allowing for that, I’m afraid that to my ears Claudia Barainsky’s singing is disappointing in several respects. It doesn’t help that she’s rather forwardly recorded but I can only describe her approach as “in your face”. She has a big voice and often employs a wide vibrato, all of which gives the impression that she’s not always completely accurate in placing the notes. Too often I find her singing squally. A prime example of this occurs on the admittedly very demanding phrase “Et plagas recolere” in the tenth movement.

Comparison with the 1984 recording for Harmonia Mundi (HMC 905149), conducted by Serge Baudo, shows that there is another, better way with this music. In fairness I think his recording was made under studio conditions and the performers are not as close to the microphones as is the case on this new recording. But though the little bit of extra distance and a more sympathetic acoustic certainly helps, the key difference between the two soloists is the superior vocal quality of Baudo’s soprano, Michèle Lagrange. She sings with a calmness and with a simple authority that I don’t hear in Miss Barainsky’s voice. Lagrange’s voice has much more tonal purity and she sounds far more accurate. Thus, though she also finds the line at “Et plagas recolere” demanding, the sound that she makes at that point falls far more pleasingly on the ear and, like everything else she does, is far more stylish than anything we hear from Claudia Barainsky. This is a pity because the choral and orchestral aspects of Joshard Daus’s performance are perfectly satisfactory.

So, I’m afraid that I can only conclude that this new disc, hampered by a poor soprano soloist and by unacceptably short playing time, is simply not recommendable. If you want a recording of the Poulenc Stabat Mater I’d advise you to look elsewhere. If it’s still available, the Baudo recording, though also short on playing time, offers a better alternative.

John Quinn

With a poor soprano soloist and unacceptably short playing time this disc is simply not recommendable.