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25 Sep 2006

POULENC: Gloria and Stabat Mater

In the 1930s, Poulenc’s turn to writing sacred choral music such as the Litanies à la vierge noire and the Mass in G was closely linked to his new embrace of Roman Catholicism following the death of a close friend, the composer Pierre-Octave Ferroud.

Francis Poulenc: Gloria and Stabat Mater

Barbara Hendricks, Choeurs de Radio France, Orchestre National de France, Georges Prêtre (cond.)

EMI Classics 0946 3 55688 2 0 [CD]

$6.48  Click to buy

This turn is echoed in the 1950s with both his Stabat Mater (1950) and his Gloria (1959), two works re-issued here in recordings from 1985 and 1989, performed by the French National Orchestra and the Choir of Radio France with the American soprano, Barbara Hendricks, conducted by Georges Prêtre.

Poulenc’s Gloria is often brilliantly exuberant, and this quality finds the forces at their best. The choir and orchestra alike shimmer and sparkle with flair, and this exuberance goes a long way towards securing the success of the performance. It is also quite striking how fluent the performers’ command of the idiom is. If Poulenc winks his eye, it is clear that the performers have no doubt about what the gesture means, and they embrace it with an engaging naturalness.

Not all of the Gloria is extroversion. The “Domine Deus” section has a memorable moodiness about it with haunting melodic contours; contours that soloist Barbara Hendricks negotiates with expressive ease. In this section, as well, the soprano is frequently given a simple, chant-like refrain, which she renders with much poise and control. Yet overall, I suspect it is the radiance of her sound that proves most memorable. Here in the Gloria, Prêtre (or is it the audio engineer?) lets the radiance play against the background sound of choir and orchestra, and keeps it in interesting timbral relief.

The Stabat Mater is a longer work and an emotionally more complex one, treating the inner turmoil of Mary at the Crucifixion and devotional responses to that. Over the length of the work, Poulenc’s score presents strong contrasts; contrasts that give it a dramatic edge—sometimes, even a narrative sense. Regrettably EMI has not included text or translation, thus veiling the score’s more specific gestures.

The choral performance in Stabat Mater is less convincing than in the Gloria. Acoustically the choir seems often in the background, even when their material is primary. Additionally, much of the singing here is soft—given the text, that is unsurprising—but the soft seems to be more “undersung” than “less loud”; it has a wispiness about it that makes you fear it may soon sag. It doesn’t, but the fear remains.

In an age of recyclables, we can be grateful that EMI has given these performances a second life. The Gloria is wonderfully idiomatic and engaging, with soprano solos of distinctive beauty.

Steven Plank

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