In all probability neither Frank Martin nor Francis Poulenc would have thought of performing their masses with boys voices. In fact a recording survives of the choir who gave the first performance of the Poulenc, and nothing could be further from boyish purity in their delivery. But it is a measure of the development of English Cathedral choirs in the 20th
century that such technically complex pieces have become part of the repertoire.
In their different ways both Martin and Poulenc look back to earlier styles of music. The purity of tone and clean sense of line which boys bring to the music helps to highlight this.
Martin's work is an early one, written before he had developed his full mature style, with its 12 note inflections. But the mass is a masterpiece nonetheless, made even more remarkable by the way Martin simply put it in a drawer and did not encourage performances.
By contrast Poulenc's mass represents a significant milestone in his composing career; the moment when he regained his Catholic faith. It was the cue for his turning out a sequence of sacred works, deeper and darker than his earlier style, but still shot through with the same wit and mischief.
Stephen Darlington and Christ Church Cathedral Choir accompany the two masses with Poulenc's ravishing Quatres Petites Prières de Saint François d'Assise
and his Salve Regina
. The former from 1948, is for male voices only and receives a poised performance from the tenors and basses.
The choir sings all these pieces with lusty confidence. There is hardly any feeling of technical struggle. They capture just the right feeling of flexibility and chant inflection in the Martin, and give the Poulenc mass the necessary diamond brilliance.
That said, the recording is twenty years old and in some ways
has been over taken. Compared to some recordings with mixed voice
choirs, the boys' range of expression is a little limited. Whereas
James O'Donnell and Westminster Cathedral Choir have shown in
the 1998 recording of the Frank Martin that boys' voices can compete
with women for expressiveness. My recommended recording for the
Martin would be the Westminster one where Hyperion couple it with
the lesser known, but lovely, Pizzetti Requiem.
Christ Church Cathedral Choir presented a strong line-up, with 28 singers including 15 boys, and an adult contingent which at the time included Edward Wickham and Andrew Carwood.
Perhaps this disc does not quite make first choice on the library shelves. However it is an attractive combination of works, strongly characterised and intelligently sung.