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Francis POULENC (1899-1963)
Stabat Mater (1950) [27:20]
Sept Répons des Ténèbres (1961/62) [34:50]
Carolyn Sampson (soprano)
Cappella Amsterdam
Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir
Estonian National Symphony Orchestra/Daniel Reuss
rec. June 2012, Estonia Concert Hall, Tallinn, Estonia
Full Latin texts with English, French and German translations
HARMONIA MUNDI HMC 902149 [62:12]

It’s always pleasing to have new Poulenc recordings in the catalogue and with open arms I welcome this new Harmonia Mundi release.
 
Parisian composer Francis Poulenc seemed incapable of writing anything unappealing. An exquisite craftsman Poulenc wrote in most genres: eminently accessible songs, instrumental, chamber, orchestral music and opera. Poulenc’s melody-rich music abounds in charm and joie de vivre.
 
Born a Roman Catholic, he faced many personal struggles and with this his Roman Catholic beliefs waned for a significant period. In his mid-thirties Poulenc’s faith was rekindled following a pilgrimage to the shrine of the Black Virgin of Rocamadour and the horrific death in 1936 from a car accident of his friend the composer Pierre-Octave Ferroud. This religious fervour inspired a stream of sacred scores that generally revealed a serious, darker and more reflective quality as demonstrated by his Litanies à la Vierge Noire and Mass, and his opera the Dialogues of the Carmelites. The latter deals with the grave subject of martyrdom – on that occasion the guillotining of French Carmelite nuns during the French Revolution.
 
In response to a commission from Leonard Bernstein for the New York Philharmonic, Poulenc wrote the Sept Répons des Ténèbres (Seven tenebrae responses) for boy soloist, boys and male choir and orchestra. The premiere was given after Poulenc’s death in 1963 at the Philharmonic Hall (now the Avery Fisher Hall) in New York directed by Thomas Schippers. In the Tenebrae responses Poulenc sets serious sacred texts dealing with distress, sorrow, darkness, betrayal, crucifixion and ultimately Christ’s crucifixion. He does so with writing of an equally dark and extremely sombre character. Here Daniel Reuss conducts the score in a version for soprano with mixed voices and orchestra. Orchestra and chorus are excellent and surmount the challenges of wide dynamics and varying emotional states. I was struck by how the extremely brassy and percussive writing complements the solo and vocal forces far better than one might be imagined. Notable is the glorious singing of Carolyn Sampson whose voice is in splendid condition. The dramatic episodes in a number of the Tenebrae responses are quite thrillingly performed. Particularly satisfying are the ostinato rhythms on the low strings in the final movement in Ecce quomodo moritur Justus and the associated temperament of reverential reflection.
 
When the leading French painter and set designer Christian Bérard died suddenly in 1950 Poulenc was inspired to write his Stabat Mater for soprano, chorus and orchestra. Dedicated to the Virgin of Rocamadour, Poulenc described the Stabat Mater as a “Requiem without despair”. In 1951 in Strasbourg, Fritz Munch conducted the première with soloist Geneviève Moizan, Choirs of Saint-Guillaume and the Strasbourg Municipal Orchestra. Here Reuss’s forces admirably serve both the supplicatory passion of the generally mournful texts and the extreme and colourful dynamics. One of the most remarkable movements is the Vidit suum dulcem natum with Sampson soaring quite resplendently over the lightly scored chorus and orchestra. Striking is the formidable climax of the Quis est homo movement while the exultant Finale: Quando corpus morietur is remarkably dramatic.
 
A remarkable job has been done balancing the significant forces and achieving real clarity. The label is to be congratulated for providing full Latin texts with English translations. Carolyn Sampsons’s appealing tone comes across well. She projects strongly and demonstrates apposite reverential expression. No wonder the services of this remarkable soprano are in such demand.
 
It’s been some time since I heard the individual words of a Latin text so clearly as demonstrated by Cappella Amsterdam and the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir. Clearly impeccably prepared, the pinpoint ensemble of the choruses is remarkable. Daniel Reuss is responsive to the demands of Poulenc’s scoring and his Estonian National Symphony Orchestra evince crisp and fresh playing.
 
This Harmonia Mundi disc is one of the most satisfying choral music collections to cross my desk in quite some time.
 
Michael Cookson
 




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