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REVIEW Plain text for smartphones & printers

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Francis POULENC (1899-1963)
Choral Works
Sept Chansons (1936) [12.39]
Mass in G major (1937) [17.14]
Quatre motets pour le temps de pénitence
Quatre motets pour le temps de Noël
Elora Festival Singers/Noel Edison
rec. St. John’s Church, Elora, Ontario, Canada, 2012/13
NAXOS 8.572978 [54.13]

If you are new to Poulenc and his choral music or if you do not have a disc of these now, well-known a cappella works then this would be an ideal place to start. It contains the core items of his output in serviceable and sometimes quite inspired interpretations by what is a fine choir. The Elora Singers and their director Noel Edison are no strangers either to the recording studio or perhaps I should say church and there are many other discs by them in the Naxos catalogue.

Another plus, I am delighted to report, is that Naxos, for this release at least, have not only supplied an extensive essay by Dominic Wells and black and white photos of the choir and conductor but also complete texts with translations. There is a translation of the essay into French so, you can see, before we even discus the music and its performance that there is much to commend this issue.

I have been making a comparison with the superb Swedish Radio Choir who recorded the Mass and the Sept Chansons in 2011 (Channel Classics SA31411) along with that virtuoso work La Figure Humaine. Both choirs are, in fairness, technically reliable and dependable but there are other factors, which will guide a preference.

When, as a choirboy in the early 1960s at an English provincial cathedral, I first sang the Mass in G, I remember thinking that it was the hardest thing I’d ever done and one of the most modern. It is certainly a challenge for any choir and can never really work liturgically with, for example its very long Kyrie and quite extended Sanctus. The polyphony is often quite complex and there are many modulations and chromatic passages which form a strong aspect of Poulenc’s chromatically modal language, so that intonation can cause difficulties. The Swedish choir are generally more expressive and more spacious in delivery; overall they add almost two minutes onto the performance time of this new version. However for my taste the soprano soloist, who is especially highlighted in the Agnus Dei, has a slightly obtrusive vibrato whereas the unnamed soloist in the Elora Choir is pure and ‘floaty’. Indeed I can't help but wonder if this Canadian choir are generally younger as there is a glorious freshness to their reading which is very attractive. My only sadness is that they tend to miss many of the expressive points which need even more control and care.

Some of you might not like the presence of women in the choir and therefore the sound of the boy choristers of King's College under Sir Philip Ledger on Classics for Pleasure might be more to your liking. Similarly you can hear the Choir of Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford in a fine and again slower and expressive performance of the Quatre motets pour le temps de pénitence under Simon Preston (Decca 430 346-2). On the whole the Elora Festival Singers are a little rushed in much of this repertoire although, where needed, excitement is certainly there especially in the faster and lighter movements of the Sept Chansons. You will hear this in the third one - Par une nuit nouvelle - a piece which has many quite awkward corners and sudden contrasts. The Swedish choir are much more fleet of foot in the first chanson La blanche neige but more willing to give space and time to the moving Tous les droits. Even so the Elora gives a consistent and open-toned account, which is always airy and bright. It would be interesting to know how many of this Canadian choir are primarily French speakers because their diction is immaculate and clear.

The Quatre motets pour le temps de Noël have been recorded by so many choirs either as a set or individually. Noel Edison brings out many of the nuances in each motet and the effect overall is pleasing and well shaped. Quem vidistis pastores dicite comes off particularly favourably.

It’s a pity that there is a playing time of well under an hour but for a good quality, budget CD which is presented so well in so many areas it is churlish to complain.

Gary Higginson


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