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Francis POULENC (1899-1963)
Sacred Choral Works
Quatre motets pour un temps de pénitence (1938/39) [15:08]
Quatre petites prières de Saint François d’Assise (1948) [19:09]
Ave verum corpus (1952) [2:27]
Salve Regina (1941) [5:00]
Quatre motets pour le temps de Noël (1951/52) [8:18]
Exultate Deo (1941) [2:40]
Laudes de Saint Antoine de Padoue (1957/59)
Mass in G major (1937) [19:35]
Secular Choral Works
Un soir de neige (1944)
Figure humaine (1943)
Chansons Françaises (1945/46)
Chanson à boire (1922) [3:54]
Petites Voix (1936)
Sept chansons (1936/37)
Barbara Borden (soprano): Quatre motets pour un temps de penitence, Mass; Robert Coupe (tenor): Quatre petites prières de Saint François d’Assise; Kathrin Pfeiffer (alto): Mass; Robert Getchell (tenor): Mass.
Nederlands Kamerkoor/Eric Ericson
rec. February 1998, The Hague, Netherlands (sacred), November 1999, Amsterdam, Netherlands (secular)
GLOBE RECORDS GLO 5254 [72:03 + 69:13]

Parisian composer Francis Poulenc seemed incapable of writing anything unappealing. He was an exquisite craftsman who wrote in most genres: eminently accessible songs, instrumental, chamber, orchestral music and opera all generally bursting with melody suffused with charm and abounding in joie de vivre.
 
It’s good to have this reissued collection from Globe back in the catalogue - a combination of both sacred and secular scores. Works such as the oft-recorded Stabat Mater (1950), Gloria (1959) and the Cantata Le bal masqué(1932) all featuring an orchestra and the Litanies à la vierge noire with organ are not included here. 

Born a Roman Catholic, the composer faced many personal struggles and his faith waned. It was rekindled in his mid-thirties following the horrific death in 1936 from a car accident of his friend the composer Pierre-Octave Ferroud. This provided him with the fervour to write a stream of sacred scores generally containing a darker-hued sonority of a contemplative nature.
 
The performers on this release are the Nederlands Kamerkoor, a full-time, independent, professional choir based in Amsterdam. Founded in 1937 by director Felix de Nobel they were originally named the Chorus Pro Musica. In 2012 they celebrated their 75th anniversary. Sadly in February 2013 Eric Ericson the Swedish director on this reissue died aged 94. 

Poulenc’s first unaccompanied sacred choral work is the exquisite Mass in G major. This is one of the earliest fruits of Poulenc’s rekindled Roman Catholic faith. It’s a complex work for mixed choir cast in five sections and bears a dedication to his father’s memory who had died twenty years earlier. The four movement Quatre motets pour un temps de penitence (Four Lenten Motets) from 1938/39 for mixed choir are settings of liturgical texts used during Lent. Poulenc said that they “are as realistic and tragic as an Andrea Mantegna painting.” A nice touch is that each of the four motets is dedicated to a friend of the composer. Here on this substantial work Barbara Borden is the soprano soloist. From 1948 the Quatre petites prières de Saint François d’Assise (Four small prayers of St. Francis of Assisi) for men’s choir was written at the request of friar Jérome Poulenc at the Franciscan monastery choir at Champfleury; he was a relative of the composer. In this four section score Poulenc blends the textures of plainchant and early polyphony with his own style. The Quatre motets pour le temps de Noël (Four Motets for Christmas Time) from 1951/52 are Yuletide motets for mixed choir and include scenes from the Nativity. For male chorus the Laudes de Saint Antoine de Padoue (Praise of St. Anthony of Padua) from 1957/59 is a four section score composed in praise of Poulenc’s favourite Saint. The texts are from the Office of St. Anthony by the poet and musician Julian of Speyer. Completing the disc are three single-movement sacred scores: Ave verum corpus (1952), Salve Regina (1941) and the Exultate Deo (1941). Each work may be small in length but is certainly not deficient in quality.

The second disc features Poulenc’s unaccompanied secular choral music with the Figure humaine (The face of man) for mixed choir probably the best known work. Poulenc lavished great care over the wonderful choral cantata Figure humaine a masterwork that he completed in 1943 during the Nazi occupation of France. In eight sections the challenging score is a setting of poems by Paul Éluard. The short chamber cantata Un soir de neige (A snowy evening) for mixed choir in four sections is a lesser known Éluard setting. It seems that Poulenc in 1944 wrote the work swiftly taking just a couple of days. According to the Globe notes by Mark van Dongan, Poulenc used snow as a symbol of repression and inner resistance. Chansons Françaises (French Songs) for mixed choir (1945/46) has eight sections the fourth and sixth are for men’s choir only. These are traditional/folk songs settings so strongly French in character and could be said to commemorate the end of the Second World War. From 1922 the Chanson à boire (Drinking Song) for men’s choir is cast in a single section. It’s the earliest unaccompanied choral work that Poulenc wrote. This bawdy setting to an anonymous text was written for the Harvard Glee Club, Massachusetts and as can be understood from the title celebrates the attractions of intoxication. In five short sections Petites Voix (Young Voices) for women’s choir (1936) are settings of text by Belgium poet Madeline Ley. As described in the booklet notes by Mark van Dongan the settings pay homage to the innocence of children. Each section is dedicated to a particular child of Poulenc’s friends. Also from 1936 the Sept chansons (Seven songs) for mixed choir are settings of five poems of Paul Éluard and two by Apollinaire.
 
The Nederlands Kamerkoor directed by Eric Ericson is in remarkable form throughout both the sacred and secular works. They achieve a high degree of unison combined with a real sense of artistry. It would be hard to better these performances. Clearly Ericson had prepared the choir impeccably with consistent purity of tone and an impressive transparency of texture displaying this music at its finest. In the sacred works there’s a satisfying degree of reverential expression and it is of such an elevated quality it feels almost mystical at times. This can be heard to glorious effect in the Quatre motets pour un temps de pénitence (Four Lenten Motets). Soprano Barbara Borden’s glowing lament in the section Tristis est anima mea (My soul is exceedingly sad) feels divinely reverential. The Figure humaine (The face of man) a hymn to freedom for Occupied France during World War Two is the standout secular work. I especially enjoyed the forceful expressive fervour in the opening section De tous les printemps du monde (Of all the spring times of the world)and the drama in En chantant les servantes s'élancent (As they sing, see the maids rushing forward) is especially notable. Toi ma patiente (Thou patient one) has a dark melancholy and Le jour métonne et la nuit me fait peur (Surprised by day and by night made afraid) is given a warmly sympathetic performance. The Figure humaine is a truly remarkable work. I still recall a powerfully affecting performance given in September 2009 at the Berlin Konzerthaus by the combined Latvijas Radio koris and the Valsts Akadēmiskais koris Latvija directed by Sigvards Kļava. 

Both of these reissued discs on the Globe label have fairly warm and well detailed sound. The balance and perspective on each disc is excellent too. I can only describe the booklet notes as adequate; extra information about each work would have been welcome. Globe is to be congratulated for providing full texts with English translations. Throughout I have used the translations as given in the booklet. The music is extremely well served by this reissue. I would be extremely content if these were the only recordings I had of these marvellous Poulenc works such is their quality.

Michael Cookson