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Poulenc - Gloria & Motets - International Record Review

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Poulenc’s Catholic faith is much written about. The familiar contradictions in his character, the saint versus the sinner, somehow served to ignite a flame in his music – it’s as if the musical realization of ecstasy tinged with terror acted as a catalyst to inspire some of Poulenc’s most exquisite music.In performance, it demands utter conviction – and anyone who has ever tried will also know that it is knotty stuff to sing. The harmonies seem to slide away underneath you, easily leading to (at best) momentary uncertainty of intonation as each unexpected but magical progression reaches some new region of intensity. You want to curse him for letting his composing hands wander in seemingly random experimentation over his keyboard, even as you realise that his secure ear and vivid imagination were actually…glorious. 

The Gloria is just that. Especially when, as here, it radiates a kind of blazing intensity second to none. Quite how Stephen Layton gets the singers of his hand-picked choir Polyphony to generate such white heat in a draughty North London church on a wet mid-week morning I do not know, but he does. Listen, for instance, to the start of the Gloria’s final section, ‘Qui sedes ad dexteram Patris’ – you could almost burn your fingers at the lacerating force with which the power of God the Father is invoked. The choral attack is laser-like, the rhythmic drive and energy exhilarating. This Gloria is recorded throughout with wonderful vocal and instrumental clarity and definition: precision of ensemble and intonation is absolute, the sound spellbinding – the dynamic range is breathtaking, but the recording has no trouble coping. It’s an exhilarating listen; and on top of all that, Layton’s chosen soloist is a joy, too. Susan Gritton soars ethereally above the stave in the two ‘Domine Deus’ movements, her sweetness of tone and so-discreet portamento ideal for Poulenc: never lush, never coy, never operatic. 

The Gloria occupies some 24 of the 55 minutes of music on this disc. I should warn you that there is no let-up in intensity once the admirable Britten Sinfonia has disappeared and Polyphony is left on its own: indeed, though I hardly dare to say so, I even thought that once or twice it was overdoing it, with (for a second or three) individual voices coming out of the choral texture when they shouldn’t. The last item on the CD, Exultate Deo, is, well, exultant almost to an extreme. Far better that, though, than any hint of primness: the music surely demands the almost over-the-top spirit that I think I detect everywhere here: a spirit that even seeps into the booklet notes once or twice too! The more sombre mood of the four unaccompanied Lenten motets is superbly caught: the effect in, for instance, the wonderful ‘Vinea mea electa’ is almost heart-rending, a powerful but despairing cry from the heart.

There have been various fine versions of the Gloria over the years, from the creamy Boston version under Ozawa to a resonant Chandos issue under an understanding French conductor. There are also various older versions hidden away in multi-part sets, including a Duitoit box on Decca and the Poulenc centenary album listed above. I doubt if many of them can hold a candle to this one. It’s my feeling that Polyphony and Layton are now in prime condition for an assault on that Everest of Poulenc’s choral works, the mighty, the almost impossible, Figure humaine I for one can’t wait.

Piers Burton-Page

Poulenc - Gloria & Motets
Hyperion Records CDA67623