Wednesday, 30 April 2014

Poulenc - Stabat Mater and Sept Repons de Tenebre

Poulenc Stabat Mater, Sept Repons des Tenebres: Capella Amsterdam, Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, Estonian National Symphony Orchestra, Daniel Reuss: Harmonia Mundi
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Apr 22 2014
Star rating: 5.0

Superb performances of two of Poulenc's neglected later large-scale sacred works

Considering the popularity of Poulenc's Gloria it is surprising that his other two large-scale choral/orchestral works have had nowhere near the exposure. Now a new disc from Harmonia Mundi pairs Poulenc's Stabat Mater with his Sept Reponds de Tenebre performed by Cappella Amsterdam, the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir and the Estonian National Symphony Orchestra conducted by Daniel Reuss with Carolyn Sampson singing the soprano solos.


Poulenc's Sept Repons des Tenebres (Seven Tenebrae Responses) sets the Latin texts of seven Tenebrae responsories in a seven movement work which tells the passion stories and contemplates Christ's passion. The work was commissioned by Leonard Bernstein for the New York Philharmonic Orchestra in 1959. The posthumous premiere took place in April 1963. Poulenc had insisted on all male forces, treble soloist and choir of men and boys which may have contributed to the work's relative neglect. Here it is sung by the mixed forces of Cappella Amsterdam and the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber choir.

The work is a profoundly unsettling one, as Poulenc's writing constantly makes quick changes between dynamic and style. It is a work which never settles down and the composer seems to be considering the dread of death. Like his unaccompanied sacred music such as the mass and the Quatre Motets pour un temps de penitence Poulenc uses fragmentation and repetition to create nervous excitement and panic.

Estonian National Symphony Orchestra
Estonian National Symphony Orchestra
On this recording Reuss and his forces make the most of these contrasts. Reuss keeps the louder passages pin sharp with stunning contrasts with the more poised softer passages. Often it is the orchestra cutting like a knife and here the Estonian National Symphony Orchestra is on stunning forming, providing hard brilliance in the playing where necessary and quiet poise. The vocal writing varies between quiet chant-inflected poise and jagged lines, all of which are stunningly sung by the two choirs. Wisely the choral line is allocated to two crack chamber choirs rather than a single larger group, and the results pay of in the fine accuracy and line that the contribute. Carolyn Sampson is the poised soprano solo, adding a note of mellow beauty to her solos.

This is a stunning performance, which not only gives Poulenc's music the brilliance and contrast it needs, but still find moments of quiet repose. Reuss creates a seductive, but profoundly unsettling work.

Daniel Reuss
Daniel Reuss
Poulenc's Stabat Mater was written somewhat earlier and premiered at the Strasbourg Festival in June 1951. Like the Sept Repons des Tenebres the chorus is omnipresent, singing virtually all the time, but there are differences between the two works. In the Stabat Mater Poulenc is more considered with his dramatic styles, and each movement tends to address a specific affekt rather than constantly turning on a pin. The result gives the piece a feeling of slow build, and concentrated contemplation rather than unsettling panic. But between the movements, Poulenc certainly varies the tone, so that we get quietly intense ones, and fast forward moving ones, all sung with technical skill and poise by the choirs. The work is one of those that needs to feel as if the chorus has been singing it for years, the choral writing must feel natural and obvious. Whilst you would never mistake the choirs for French ones, they bring an admirably fluent and natural feel to the work. And the ending, is simply magical. And again Carolyn Sampson contributes some lovely poised soprano solos.

For much of the time in the Stabat Mater you feel as if you are in a world which mixes the orchestral interludes from Poulenc's Carmelites with the Quatre Motets pour un temps de penitence. Reuss and his performers make the most of these parallels, clearly relishing the distinctive soundworld.  Reuss keeps the work finely paced, always with an eye (and ear) on the greater architecture of Poulenc's music.

The sound quality is very clear, with a nice clarity to the vocal sound. I rather suspect that the whole disc might be demonstration quality, such is crisp edge and brilliance to the orchestral sound. If you love Poulenc's later music, have always enjoyed Carmelites, the Gloria or Quatre Motets pour un temps de penitence then this is for you; a disc which I hope will bring two fine but neglected works to prominence.

Francis Poulenc (1899 - 1963) - Sept Respons de Tenebre (1963)

Francis Poulenc (1899 - 1963) - Stabat Mater (1951)
Carolyn Sampson (soprano)
Cappella Amsterdam
Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir
Estonian National Symphony Orchestra
Daniel Reuss (conductor)
Recorded June 2012, Estonia Concert Hall, Tallinn, Estonia
HARMONIA MUNDI HMC 902149

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