Wednesday 3 July 2013

Poulenc choral music from RIAS Kammerchor

Poulenc - Figure humaine, Motets - RIAS Kammerchor, HMG 508394.95
With this two disc set, Harmonia Mundi have re-issued both of the RIAS Kammerchor's recordings of Poulenc's unaccompanied choral music and created a highly desirable box which covers Poulenc's choral music both sacred and profane. The music on the disc covers a 30 year period, from the Chanson a boire of 1922 to the Quatre motets pour le temps de Noel of 1952 and encompasses both sets of Poulenc's motets, the mass plus his major secular pieces, Sept chansons, Un soir de neige and Figure humaine. Though the majority of the music on the disc comes from the period 1938-1944, leaving one to wonder how the situation in Europe might have made Poulenc's imagination turn to unaccompanied choral music. The two discs were recorded at different times, with conductors Daniel Reuss and Marcus Creed, but the result is finely performed and with a nicely consistent tone.

Poulenc's choral music has a distinctive character all of its own, notable to choral singers for the angular vocal lines and very particular way Poulenc has of voice chords and crossing individual parts. The results can be tricky to perform, particularly with the internal balance of parts and the tuning. Combine this with the way the composer changes direction and dynamics in an instant, and you have music which is of great genius but requires technical skill to perform.

The beauty of these performances is that the RIAS Kammerchor make you completely forget about any technical issues, that is all taken for granted. But there is nothing showy about the performances, we don't sit there thinking 'aren't this group brilliant', instead they make us think about the music that they are performing.

The first disc, conducted by Daniel Reuss, consists mainly of Poulenc's secular works, the three great cycles Sept chansons, Un suir de neige and Figure humaine. Sept chansons, consisting of settings of poems by Paul Eluard and Guillaume Apollinaire, dates from 1936. Apart from the short Chanson a boire of 1922, this is Poulenc's first major work for unaccompanied choir. It is a masterly work, inspired both by Monteverdi and by Debussy's Trois chansons de Charles d'Orleans, madrigalesque and highly virtuosic. The seven movements are settings of great refinement, and wide emotional range and the group perform with magical control and some devastating technical skill. The sound quality is finely transparent, with great clarity so that Poulenc's textures are clear.

Un soir de neige setting texts by Paul Eluard was written in 1944, it is a short chamber cantata with just four very concise movements. It is a devastating depiction of a Paris beleaguered both by winter and by war, occupied by the Nazis. The choir again perform with fine control and the movements are each given a superb sense of line, with clarity of texture and great atmosphere. But the singing, is for my taste, a little too fine grained, there are moments when I feel that Poulenc's textures could be harder edged.  I sensed hushed reverence in the performance, when I wanted to feel the bit of the cold and the austerity of Poulenc's writing.

Figure Humaine, also setting Eluard, dates from the year before Un suir de neige. It started out as a setting of Eluard's great poem, Liberte and developed into the substantial eight movement cantata for double choir. The work was published clandestinely and premiered in London in 1945 (in English). It is a devastating work, a plea for the forces of humanity in the midst of war. Poulenc brings great technical skill to the piece, alternating moods in the different movements, and gradually building towards the glorious paen in the final movement, with its repeated J'ecris ton nom.

The choir bring great beauty and great control to the performance, and the lively moments have very finely pointed rhythms, with fast, tight control in the fast sections. This performance is a stunning technical achievement and also an emotional one, when we consider that it is German choir singing a work written in the darkest days of Occupied France.

That said, there is something rather tempered about it as well. In all three works I did rather keep coming back to the choir's language. Their French is entirely creditable and believable, but there is something a little understated about how they use the language when singing. And the conclusion to Figure humaine, the culmination of a gradual build up, does not seem quite desperate enough. Or should I be content with such superb musical technique?

The first disc concludes with the Quatres petite prieres de saint Francois d'Assise and the Chanson a boireQuatres petite prieres de saint Francois d'Assise was composed in 1948 for his nephew who was a monk. They are simple, austere pieces which are here given wonderfully warm performances by the men of the RIAS Kammerchor. Performances which bring out their fervour. Finally the early Chanson a boire which is frankly a rather curious and disjointed piece.

The second disc, conducted by Marcus Creed, gathers Poulenc's unaccompanied Latin sacred music. They start with Poulenc's 1938 Quatre Motets pour un temp de penitence sets four texts all relating to Holy Week. Each of the four motets has beautiful moments. They sing with a very fine sense of line and their tuning is impressive. Whilst they do bring great power to the works, e.g. in Timor et tremor, I could not help feeling that they could have been harsher. Like the performances on disc one, these are very well tempered accounts of the music lacking edge to the anxiety and fervour that one might associate with more southern Mediterranean form of Catholicism. There is a very fine soprano solo in the last of the motets.

Exultate Deo and Salve Regina were written in 1941 as a wedding present for friends. Both are a complete delight and whilst more approachable than some of the composer's sacred music, both are still tricky to perform and bring off. They receive performances of delightful poise from the RIAS Kammerchor.

Quatre Motets our le temps de Noel are hardly less anguished than the Eastertide motets, they are Poulenc's final essay in unaccompanied choral music, written in 1952. Again we have pellucid textures, a nice feeling of intimacy and some magical moments (such as the opening textur of Videntes stellam). The concluding Hodie Chrstus natus est is suitably glorious, albeit a bit steady in tempo, I wanted something a bit more headlong.

Poulenc's Mass was written in 1937 and was in fact his first a cappella religious composition. The vocal writing is aking to the Sept Chansons which Poulenc had written the year before.  The Kyrie starts as the performance means to go on, with a good clear sound, fabulous lines and a great clarity of texture. Though I rather sense that Creed shies away from the dissonances rather than relishing them. The Gloria is a helter-skelter ride of a piece, and the choir navigate it well, with some finely detailed rhythms. There is great delicacy in the Sanctus and quiet beauty in the Benedictus though neither has quite the fervour I would want. The Agnus Dei concludes things with a radiant soprano solo.

The CD booklet comes with two articles, one for each disc. There are also texts but, be warned, they are only in the original language so you might need to do some research if you don't possess the texts on another disc.

This is a very fine set indeed, technically of a very high order and anyone ordering it will not be disappointed. As a lover of Poulenc's music and having performed most of these pieces myself, I do however find myself chafing at the rather tempered approach which both Reuss and Creed take. Not everyone will find this a problem, and most people will find this set a joy.

Francis Poulenc (1899 - 1963) - Sept Chansons pour choeur mixte (1936)
Francis Poulenc - Un soir de neige (1944)
Francis Poulenc - Figure humaine (1943)
Francis Poulenc - Quatre petite pirere de saint Francois d'Assise (1948)
Francis Poulenc - Chanson a boire (1922)
Francis Poulenc - Quatre motets pour un temps de penitence (1938-39)
Francis Poulenc - Quatre motets pour le temps de Noel (1952)
Francis Poulenc - Mess en Sol majeur (1939)
RIAS Kammerchor
Daniel Reuss (conductor)
Marcus Creed (conductor)
Recorded September 2004 and June/August 1995, Jesus Christus-Kirche, Berlin-Dahlem
HMG 508394.95 2CDs
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