Francis POULENC (1899-1963)
Secular Choral Music

Chansons françaises (1945-46) [19:11]
Chanson à boire (1922) [3:29]
Sept Chansons (1936) [11:48]
Petites voix (1936) [5:36]
Un soir de neige (1944) [5:41]
Figure humaine (1945) [18:44]
Norddeutscher Figuralchor/Jörg Straube
rec. 30 August 2008, 20-21 March 2009, 27 June 2009, Ehem. Ackerhaus der Abtei Marienmünster, Germany. SACD

This is a most welcome disc. While one often encounters Poulenc’s sacred choral music, such as the motets, Gloria, or Stabat Mater, the secular music appears less frequently on recordings. All of the music on this CD is a cappella and appears to be the composer’s complete secular works for unaccompanied chorus. Although the pieces represent Poulenc in more than a twenty-year span — the earliest from 1922 and the latest from 1945 — there is an amazing consistency in their quality and maturity. Moreover, there is a great deal of variety; so one can listen to the disc all the way through without boredom setting in.

Poulenc’s sense of humor and lightheartedness is brought out best in the first set of songs, the Chansons françaises, with their colorful use of onomatopoeia: the “click, clack” of the clogs, or the drunken laughter in the Chanson à boire. The Chansons françaises hold a place in the repertoire not dissimilar to that of the folksong settings of Bartók or Janácek. The composer’s serious side is prevalent in the Figure humaine, which was originally set as an act of resistance during the time of the German occupation. This cantata is likely the best known of these works and is certainly one of his greatest. Poulenc himself considered it one of his best compositions. Un soir de neige, which Poulenc composed around the same time, also expresses with its frequent fourths and fifths, the emptiness he must have felt during this period. Both of these works are based on the poetry of Paul Eluard, Poulenc’s good friend. For the earlier Sept Chansons, containing much typical Poulencian harmony, the composer employed some poems by Eluard and others of Guillaume Apollinaire. His settings of this poetry are masterly, and one finds it difficult to separate the lyrics from the music. The Petites voix are the only ones on the CD exclusively sung by female voices. They were originally set for three children’s voices, but were also scored for either children’s or women’s choirs.

While none of these works must be easy to sing, they all suit the voice very well, as one would expect from a composer most renowned for his vocal music. I am happy to report that the performances by the Norddeutscher Figuralchor, under the expert direction of Jörg Straube, are superb. The choir has a wonderful blend and no detectable intonational problems. The only small criticism is with the diction as recorded here, though the choir expresses the variety of moods of the texts supremely well. It is fortunate that the booklet contains the complete texts in the original French with side-by-side English translations, because I found myself following along in order fully to understand the texts. The sound itself is open with plenty of bloom on the voices; this also may affect to some degree the comprehensibility of the texts, however much it makes for pleasant listening. I do not want to over-emphasize this because there is so much here that is truly beautiful, and a Francophone may well be able to understand the words better than I could. French groups, such as the Accentus Chamber Choir, have recorded some of these pieces, but I have not had the opportunity to audition them. Overall, though, this disc can be recommended to anyone who loves Poulenc and/or twentieth-century choral music.

Leslie Wright