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Francis POULENC (1899-1963)
Sept Répons de Ténèbres (1961-2) [27:09]
Stabat Mater (1950) [35:03]
Carolyn Sampson (soprano)
Cappella Amsterdam/Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir
Estonian National Philharmonic Orchestra/Daniel Reuss
rec. June 2012, Estonia Concert Hall, Tallinn, Estonia
Latin texts, English, French, German translations included
HARMONIA MUNDI HMC902149 [62:12]

These two fine religious works by Poulenc make a logical coupling but so far as I know they’ve never previously been paired on disc. Both are excellent examples of the depth of feeling of which Poulenc was capable in his sacred music.
 
Sept Répons de Ténèbres was commissioned by Leonard Bernstein for the New York Philharmonic late in 1959. The première was given in New York, under the direction of Thomas Schippers, just a few weeks after the composer’s death so, sadly, he never heard the work in performance. He scored the piece for treble soloist, an all-male choir, including trebles, and orchestra. Hervé Lacombe says in his notes that Poulenc ‘absolutely insisted’ on male singers though I have to say I’ve never heard a performance by other than mixed voices.
 
Poulenc took for his text seven of the Tenebrae responsories used in the Catholic Church’s liturgies in Holy Week. Hervé Lacombe says this of the work: ‘At the centre of the work’s layout is the young boy (Poulenc), alone and exposed, confronted with the drama of the Passion and the drama of his own mortality. These Répons speak not only of dread before death but quite as much of the solitude of existence, creating a disturbing parallel between the figure of Christ and that of the sinner.’ Whether Lacombe is right to place the young Poulenc at the heart of the work I simply don’t know but it’s a persuasive thesis and would account for the use of a treble soloist, though the solo role is fairly brief. What is certain is that in this late work we find some of Poulenc’s most uncompromising and austere music.
 
Much of the writing is anguished and dramatic. Passages of the second section, ‘Judas mercator pessimus’ are reminiscent of some of the music in the roughly contemporaneous Gloria but there is no similarity of spirit: here the material sounds dark and troubled and later it becomes bitter. The soloist is first heard in the third section, ‘Jesum tradidit impius’ where reference is made to Peter following the arrested Jesus as he is led before Caiaphas. The soprano’s poignant music – and, indeed, everything in this section – is deeply felt; perhaps Poulenc is conveying the helplessness of Peter as he watches powerlessly the events unfolding in front of him. The soloist is also involved in the fifth section, ‘Tenebrae factae sunt’, where the death of Christ is recalled by stark music. The score is full of austere, searching harmonies, especially in the choral writing. Daniel Reuss and his expert singers and players bring out all deep feeling and biting detail of Poulenc’s score and Carolyn Sampson represents luxury casting for the solo role. This is a very fine, indeed graphic account of Poulenc’s unsettling score.
 
The impetus for the composition of the Stabat Mater was the death of Poulenc’s friend, the artist Christian Bérard although Poulenc took some time to decide how he wished to assuage his grief through music; he only began work in the summer of 1950 but then the score took just two months to complete. As the composer put it, ‘At first I thought of a Requiem, but that I found too pompous. Then I had the idea of a prayer of intercession, and the heart-rending words of the Stabat seemed to me completely right for confiding the soul of dear Bérard to Our Lady of Rocamadour’. The thought of a Requiem by Poulenc is in some respects a tantalising one but the score with which he eventually commemorated Bérard is a most impressive achievement. It was first heard at the Strasbourg Festival in 1951, conducted by Fritz Munch (1890-1970), the brother of Charles Munch.
 
In this score the harmonies are often acerbic but by no means to the same degree as in the Sept Répons. Sometimes the music is jagged and dramatic but some of the writing, though dark, is solemn and dignified, as in the opening pages. I don’t believe the music is any less deeply felt but in the Stabat Mater Poulenc’s trademark bittersweet harmonic language is often used – and to telling effect. The sixth section, ‘Vidit suum dulcem natum’, offers a choice example of this trait. This movement, which is led by the soloist, is lovely and very poignant. It’s interesting, though, that this is immediately followed by ‘Eia mater, fons amoris’, which is surprisingly lively and piquant, given the subject matter, and at the end of this section the little brass glissando is even a bit cheeky.
 
There’s much very fine choral writing in this piece – the choir carries the burden of the argument throughout the work. In the eighth section, ‘Fac ut ardeat cor meum’, the choir is almost entirely unaccompanied and the writing for the choir is inspired. The tenth section, ‘Fac ut portem Christi mortem’, has the character of a slow, grave Sarabande and here the beseeching tone of the music for the soloist, especially, and for the choir is very affecting. The final movement, ‘Quando corpus morietur’, is especially fine. The singers, including the soloist, engage in an ardent plea to be admitted to Paradise but the music eventually subsides into what seems like an acceptance through faith, conveyed through gentle, beautiful music before a brief and definite ‘Amen’.
 
This performance of Poulenc’s Stabat Mater is a very fine one. Carolyn Sampson is a wonderful soloist and the combined choirs, which number just short of fifty singers, perform Poulenc’s varied and demanding music expertly. The orchestral contribution is first rate and Daniel Reuss clearly believes in the music. The performers have been recorded in excellent sound.
 
I think there are still some people who believe that Poulenc was something of a musical gadfly, lacking depth. I don’t think anyone listening to these two eloquent pieces of sacred music could argue a lack of depth. The splendid performances on this disc make the best possible case for Poulenc’s sacred music.
 
John Quinn
 


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