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 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
) 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
are quite thrillingly performed. Particularly satisfying are
rhythms on the low strings in the final movement in
Ecce quomodo moritur Justus
and the associated temperament of
When the leading French painter and set designer Christian Bérard died
suddenly in 1950 Poulenc was inspired to write his Stabat Mater
soprano, chorus and orchestra. Dedicated to the Virgin of Rocamadour,
Poulenc described the Stabat Mater
as a “Requiem without
”. 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.
Previous review: John Quinn