Francis POULENC (1899–1963)
Mass in G (1937) [18:42]
Litanies à la Vierge Noire (1936) [8:19]
Salve Regina (1941) [4:23]
Un soir de neige (1944) [6:03]
Figure humaine (1943) [19:23]
Quatre petites prières de Saint François d'Assise (1948) [6:41]
James Sherlock (organ)
Tenebrae/Nigel Short
rec. Priory Church of St. Bartholomew the Great, West Smithfield, London, England 22-24 June 2009. DDD.

The Parisian-born Poulenc was unable to write anything unappealing. An exquisite craftsman, his eminently accessible songs, instrumental, chamber and orchestral music commonly burst with melody suffused with charm and abounding in joie de vivre.

Born a Roman Catholic the composer faced many personal struggles and his faith too reduced in importance for a number of years. Poulenc’s Catholic faith was reborn in his mid-thirties providing him with the motivation to write a number of sacred scores generally containing a darker-hued sonority of a more contemplative nature.

This collection from Signum Classics is essentially a combination of unaccompanied choral music to a mixture of sacred and secular texts. The exception is the Litanies à la Vierge Noire with an organ part.

The first work on the disc is the exquisite five movement Mass in G. Poulenc completed this in 1937 in memory of his father who had died a couple of decades earlier. From 1936 the single movement Litanies à la Vierge Noire marks a period of concentration on choral music that was ignited by the untimely death of his friend Pierre-Octave Ferroud in a horrific vehicle accident. In search of solace Poulenc went on a pilgrimage to the Rocamadour shrine in the Pyrenees where he saw the Black Madonna statue in the Chapelle de Notre-Dame. Also cast in a single movement the short Marian motet Salve Regina from 1941 is one of two that Poulenc dedicated to his friends Georges and Hélène Salle.

Completed in 1943 during the Nazi occupation of France the wonderful choral cantata the Figure humaine is the feature score. This challenging cantata in eight movements is a setting of texts from poems by Paul Éluard. The chamber cantata Un soir de neige (A Night of Snow) is one of Poulenc’s lesser known Éluard settings. Designed in four short movements Poulenc wrote the work swiftly in just a matter of days in 1944. Poulenc’s Quatre petites prières de St François d’Assise was composed in 1948 for the Champfleury monastery choir; there Frère Jerome, a great-nephew of the composer was a monk.

The professional Tenebrae was founded by their director Nigel Short and made their debut in 2001. For this disc they are thirty-three strong. With considerable expertise Nigel Short directs the impeccably prepared choir in beautiful accounts. They have the added advantage of crystal clear and superbly balanced sound. Signum are to be congratulated for providing full texts with English translations.

In a manner reminiscent of the King’s Singers Tenebrae’s precision accuracy in the climaxes has a rather synthesized sound; like an electronic pulse. This can feel rather mannered and soon becomes wearing. Immaculate and exquisite singing doesn’t always ensure a greater degree of reverential expression. An increase of tonal character is an approach that I find often suits Poulenc’s music better. In September 2009 at the Konzerthaus Berlin I recall hearing a coarser-grained performance of the Figure humaine given by the combined Lettischer Rundfunkchor and the Staatschor der Republik Lettland that worked exceptionally and certainly radiated a strong sense of reverence.

As a reliable guide through Poulenc’s choral works the Figure humaine and Un soir de neige I would suggest the characterful Chœur de Chambre Accentus directed by Laurence Equilbey. Recorded at IRCAM in Paris in 2000 Equilbey’s interpretations are available on Naïve V 4883 (c/w Sept Chansons); a disc lasting under 39 minutes.

Michael Cookson

Nigel Short directs the impeccably prepared Tenebrae in beautiful accounts of this music… see Full Review