Chormusik des 20. Jahrhunderts II
Frank MARTIN (1890-1974) Mass for double choir a cappella (1922-26) [26:34]
Heitor VILLA-LOBOS (1887-1959) Bachianas Brasileiras No. 9 (1945) [9:09]
Francis POULENC (1899-1963) Figure humaine* (1943) [20:26]
EuropaChorAkademie/Sylvain Cambreling
rec. Hans Rosbaud-Studio des SWR, Baden-Baden, 2-4 June 2008; *26-27 April 2009
French text included (Poulenc)
GLOR CLASSICS GC09211 [56:20]

This interesting programme presents two masterpieces of the twentieth-century choral repertoire and a relative rarity by the Brazilian composer, Villa-Lobos. The rarity value in the inclusion of the last of his series of Bachianas Brasileiras lies in the fact that the music is presented here in its original version for ‘orchestre des voix’ as opposed to the string orchestra scoring, which is perhaps a little more commonly heard.

I must say that the programme doesn’t seem to have a logical design behind it and Frank Martin’s rather austere setting of the Mass sits a little oddly with the two more worldly items. But one doesn’t have to listen to the disc at a single setting and the quality of the music and of the performances – both of which are high - is what matters.

Martin’s Mass was composed in 1922, with the exception of the Agnus Dei, which was added four years later, but it was withheld from performance by the composer until 1963. In a sense one can understand why, for this is not overtly public music. But thank goodness Martin eventually released it for performance for it’s a fine and eloquent work – and a test for any choir. Here the test is passed with flying colours. The EuropaChorAkademie offers disciplined, controlled singing. The choir is consistently well balanced and Martin’s textures are realised with clarity as, for example, in the fugue at ‘Cum Sancto Spirito’ at the end of the Gloria. The performance of the Credo is extremely good. The hushed ‘Et incarnatus’ is beautifully controlled while the ‘Crucifixus’ is anguished, though, wisely, the emotion is not overdone at this point. The ‘Et Resurrexit’ section is buoyant and joyful. Martin’s setting of the Agnus Dei is gravely beautiful and Sylvain Cambreling and his expert singers make a very fine job of it. All in all this is a fine account of this rewarding work. My only regret is that the performance was recorded in a rather plain, dare one say secular, studio acoustic. I would have welcomed a bit of resonance around the choir.

The acoustic is not an issue for the other two pieces. Poulenc’s virtuoso settings of poems by Paul Eluard are done very convincingly and there’s a great deal to admire in the performance. The fast music of the second setting, ‘En chantant les servants s’élancent’ requires very precise delivery and that’s exactly what’s provided here. I also enjoyed the rhythmic crispness that’s in evidence in the fifth piece, ‘Riant du ciel et des planètes’. By contrast, the aching lyricism of the following song, ‘Le jour m’étonne et la nuit me fait peur’ is very successfully conveyed. The dissonant fugue of the following number, ‘La menace sous le ciel rouge’ offers a real contrast and it’s effective here, thanks to some polished, precise singing.

Poulenc reserves his greatest test for the final piece, the astonishing ‘Liberté’. This is one of the composer’s most eloquent compositions in any genre and in it he makes fearsome demands on the choir. Here the choir picks up the pace and the intensity of this remarkable music with conviction and the performance is an exciting one, culminating with the sopranos leap to e’’’.

Villa-Lobos’s wordless piece consists of a prelude and a fugue, the latter in 11/8 time. It’s quite sensuous music and on the face of it it’s an odd piece to programme after the Martin Mass, unless the key is Bach, for whose music both composers shared a great admiration. It’s not a piece that I knew previously but the performance seems assured, secure and disciplined.

This is a good CD, if rather short measure. The playing time may be short but there’s ample compensation in the quality of the music and the way in which it’s all sung. The absence of translations of Eluard’s poetry is regrettable.

John Quinn