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A new recording of Poulenc for Lenten reflection

Cover of the recording being discussed
Cover of the recording being discussed
courtesy of ClassicsOnline

One way to approach the life of Francis Poulenc is within the framework of a dialectical opposition between the secular and the sacred. His early reputation was established to a great extent through his membership in Les Six, six young French composers gathered together by Jean Cocteau to carry on the spirit of irreverence initiated by Erik Satie. That irreverence had far less to do with religion than with the century of tradition that was stagnating concert experiences (at least as Satie and Cocteau saw the situation). Poulenc’s contributions to this mission ran the gamut from the lighthearted to the risqué, the latter particularly exemplified by his providing music for the 1924 ballet “Les biches,” with its outrageous connotations of unconventional sexuality.

Then death came into his life. Beginning in 1935 he experienced a series of deaths of close friends and colleagues. This reawakened the Catholic devotion of his childhood, not only in his beginning to set liturgical texts but also in more abstract instrumental music, such as his G minor concerto for organ, whose instrumentation is limited to strings and timpani and which has a generous share of passages that evoke the sound of the organ in a vast cathedral. One of Poulenc’s most intense responses was prompted by the death of the painter and set designer Christian Bérard in February of 1949. Poulenc rejected the idea of composing a setting of the Requiem text as a response, primarily because he was reluctant to take on the demands of setting the “Dies Irae” sequence. Instead he turned to another sequence, the “Stabat Mater Dolorosa,” which he found more suitable to his preference for a more intimate expressiveness.

It is perhaps worth noting that both of these sequences have very similar poetic structure. Both consist of three-line stanzas in trochaic tetrameter. However, while all of the lines in a single “Dies Irae” stanza rhyme, the rhyme scheme for “Stabat Mater Dolorosa” extends over pairs of stanzas: AAB/CCB. The real kicker, however, comes from the rhythm. While the iambic meter, with the stressed beat following an unstressed one, tends to follow the usual pattern of human speech (which is why it served William Shakespeare so well), there is something unrelentingly oppressive about beginning with the stressed beat. In “Dies Irae” the words depict the dead being summoned from their graves to face the Last Judgment. “Stabat Mater Dolorosa,” on the other hand, depicts Mary weeping at the foot of the Cross upon which her son is dying; and every stressed syllable seems to recall the sound of the nails being driven into that Cross.

This latter text has been set by many composers. The best of them realized the need to depart from the rhythm of the text, letting the music take over from the words in capturing the tragedy of the situation. Poulenc is definitely among those composers who disregarded the text rhythm. Indeed, over the course of the ten coupled verses, he structures the music into twelve movements (meaning that he does not slavishly followed the coupled-verses structure), each with its own characteristic approach to rhythm. Those movements involve alternation between solo passages for soprano and those for a five-voice mixed chorus, all accompanied by a full orchestra (with a few extended a cappella passages for the chorus). The result is an account of the sequence text as a journey through a rich palette of sonorities, providing a more convincing representation of the complexity of Mary’s emotions in the face of the Crucifixion than would be gleaned solely from the words of the sequence.

Last month harmonia mundi released a new recording of this Poulenc composition. The soprano soloist is Carolyn Sampson, and the chorus consists of the combined forces of Cappella Amsterdam and the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir. Together with the Estonian National Symphony Orchestra, all resources are conducted by Daniel Reuss. What is most important about this recorded performance is Reuss’ sensitivity of that diverse spectrum of sonorities. True to Poulenc’s intentions, he endows each of the twelve movements with its own unique characterization; and the harmonia mundi recording team is outstanding it capturing the ways in which the different instruments in the ensemble contribution to shaping those characterizations.

On this recording the “Stabat Mater Dolorosa” setting is preceded by Poulenc’s last vocal composition, Sept répons des ténèbres (seven tenebrae responses), making the entire “program” particularly appropriate for the current Lenten period leading up to Good Friday. This was written on a commission from Leonard Bernstein for the New York Philharmonic. Like the sequence setting, the music required a full orchestra; but the vocal resources were all-male, a chorus of boys and men and a treble soloist. Unfortunately, Poulenc never got the hear the work, which was first performed on April 11, 1963, a few months after his death.

According to the booklet notes by Hervé Lacombe, Poulenc was strongly insistent about the all-male vocal setting. Lacombe’s “defense” of the more “adult” resources on this recording seem to hinge on the music deserving more attention than it has enjoyed since its premiere. This seems to imply that the demands of the score require more mature interpreters, but I am not sure I accept that argument.

Without diminishing the vocal side of this composition, I have to say that the orchestra plays a far more significant role in these tenebrae responses than it does in the “Stabat Mater Dolorosa” setting. Indeed, in terms of the use of instrumental resources, the score seems more closely related to the 1959 setting of the Gloria text from the Mass than to the earlier sequence composition. This is not to dismiss the vocal contribution to the sonorities as secondary, but it is through the orchestral writing in this piece that Poulenc is at his most innovative. On the other hand my thoughts about Poulenc’s innovations may have been different had I been listening to children, rather than adults. Consequently, I tend to approach this recording of the tenebrae responses as one that whets the appetite of the listener but may not necessarily satisfy it.