Wednesday 29 March 2017

Harry Christophers and The Sixteen in Poulenc

Francis Poulenc - The Sixteen, Harry Christophers - Coro
Poulenc Mass in G, motets, Un soir de neige; The Sixteen, Harry Christophers; Coro
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Mar 17 2017
Star rating: 4.0

Poise and sensitivity

Poulenc is one of the composers chosen for this year's Choral Pilgrimage from Harry Christophers and The Sixteen (the other composer being Palestrina). And to complement the concert series, Harry Christophers and the choir have recorded a disc of Poulenc's choral music with the Quatre motets pour un temps de pénitence, Quatre motets pour le temps de Noel, Litanies à la Vierge Noire, Salve Regina, Ave verum corpus and Mass in G, plus the secular cantata Un soir de neige setting words by Paul Eluard.

Regarding Poulenc's sacred music, the selection is no quite complete and it is a particular shame that the Quatre petites prières de Saint François d'Assise were not recorded. But the selection represents a fine overview of Poulenc's voice when writing sacred music. The repertoire on the disc covers Poulenc's first sacred music Litanies à la Vierge Noire, written in 1936 on his re-discovery of his Roman Catholic faith after the death of a close friend, through to the Ave Verum Corpus and Quatre motets pour le temps de Noel written in the 1950s.

As a contrast, the disc also includes Poulenc's chamber cantata Un soir de neige setting texts by Paul Eluard (a composer whose work Poulenc would use both in songs and in the cantata Figure humaine). Written in Occupied Paris, over Christmas 1944 the four short but profoundly eloquent movements contrast the beauties of nature with cold and death.

Listening to the disc I was struck by the relaxed nature of Harry Christophers' tempi; not that the performances lack drama and impulse, but Christophers gives time to enjoy Poulenc's varied textures. Or perhaps it is that my experience of singing these pieces in amateur choirs has inevitably had conductors  keeping the tempi going to get past the awkward corners. And there are a lot of these in Poulenc's choral writing, but you would not know that from this disc. Here the singers of The Sixteen place the harmonies beautifully, creating some spectacular textures with very fine solo moments.

The performances preserve a nice balance between the intensity which can come from being challenged, and the fatal ease which leads to tendency to skate over music's surface. In the sets of motets, each of which has a story to tell, Christophers and the choir combine a sense of poised beauty with some thrillingly intense moments of anguish.

When listening to Poulenc's sacred music I would always want to have a recording like the one from Westminster Cathedral, by a choir which brings the intensity of regular liturgical performance to bear on the music. But the poise, sensitivity and beautiful clarity of texture make these performances very special. And the same qualities make Poulenc's wonderful little Paul Eluard cantata one to treasure.

Francis Poulenc (1899-1963) - Salve Regina
Francis Poulenc - Quatre motets pour un temps de pénitence
Francis Poulenc - Litanies à la Vierge Noire
Francis Poulenc - Quatre motets pour le temps de Noel
Francis Poulenc - Mass in G
Francis Poulenc - Ave verum corpus
Francis Poulenc - Un soir de neige
The Sixteen
Robert Quinney (organ)
Harry Christophers (conductor)
Recorded at Church of St Alban the Martyr, Holborn, London, 7-10 November 2016 CORO COR16149 1CD [64.39]
Available from Amazon.

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