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Poulenc - Gloria & Motets - Music Web International

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I was 13 or 14 years old when I first heard Poulenc’s Gloria. Not knowing anything by or about this composer – the programme book for the concert only gave the text of the work and no notes on the composer – I couldn’t understand why this liturgical music was so damned enjoyable. It seemed positively sinful actually to derive delightful pleasure from a setting of these words. Now, only a few years later, knowing much more of Poulenc’s music, and understanding his description of himself as le moine et le voyou (half bad boy, half monk), I simply love being sinful in the presence of this wonderful composer. I know the music to be the man himself.

After the death of his friend, composer and critic Pierre-Octave Ferroud, in 1936, Poulenc made a pilgrimage to the ancient shrine of the Black Virgin at Rocamadour, on the banks of the Dordogne river. It seems that here he experienced a spiritual epiphany and, rediscovering his Catholic faith, almost immediately began the series of religious works which cover the whole of the rest of his career.
The Quatre motets pour un temps de pénitence is one of the first of this great series of compositions. Poulenc had studied with Charles Koechlin in the early 1920s and his insistence on the study of the music of the renaissance, and baroque counterpoint, start to make itself felt in the music post-Rocamadour. The unaccompanied works are, in general, rather more serious than the Gloria, and these penitential motets are austere, stylistically challenging and not easy to sing, but the depth of the composers’ feelings is always in evidence. This short work is by no means an easy listen but stick with it, it’s superb. By contrast, the Quatre motets pour le temps de Noël, written a decade later, is full of the joy of Christmas. It also contains a wonderful use of “incorrect” accenting of the words Gloria in excelsis Deo creating an ebullient climax and a real festive feeling of happiness. Salve regina and Exultate Deo come from between the two sets, one reflective and one exuberant.
But it is the Gloria which is the real treat here. It’s a late work, following the Stabat Mater (1950) and slightly predating the Sept Répons de Ténèbres (1961), full of high spirits and with a great verve and forward momentum. The six movements are woefully short, getting quickly to the heart of the matter, commenting on the words and moving on. Typical Poulenc, never wasting a note or gesture. It’s superbly laid out for chorus and large orchestra with short, but telling, solos for soprano.
Stephen Layton is an excellent choral trainer and conductor and he galvanises his performers to give everything in these pieces. The Britten Sinfonia plays like I’ve never heard it play before; strong, forthright and with great purpose. The joint choirs make a joyful noise in the Gloria and Polyphony, alone, present the a cappella works with great enthusiasm and style. Susan Gritton sings her all too short solos magnificently. 
This disc has an enormous dynamic range with the biggest fortissimos and the smallest, hushed, pianissimos. The recording captures every note, every phrase, every single nuance with ease. The acoustic of All Hallows Church is perfect for the job.
I have always had a soft spot for both Prêtre’s – recorded, if I remember correctly, in the presence of the composer, but a trifle stilted – and Frémaux’s recordings of the Gloria, but this new version must go to the top of the pile for sheer enjoyment value and understanding of the work.

This is, then, a success from start to finish with fantastic performances from all concerned, fabulous sound and excellent notes. What more do you need? Don’t sit there reading this, go out and buy it without delay. You won’t be disappointed. 

Bob Briggs

Poulenc - Gloria & Motets
Hyperion Records CDA67623