Poulenc Messiaen Villette

COMPOSERS: Poulenc Messiaen Villette
ALBUM TITLE: Poulenc and His French Contemporaries
WORKS: Choral Works
PERFORMER: Choir of New College Oxford/Edward Higginbottom
If you associate Poulenc with frivolity, lightness and superficiality, track 20 on the first CD here is the antidote. Austere, dramatic, deeply serious, the eight-minute Litanies à la Vierge noire is as far removed from the image of Poulenc the playboy boulevardier as possible. But good as the New College, Oxford performance is, it is perhaps (for want of a better word) a trifle Anglican. The palpable aura of Franco-Catholic mysticism surrounding the Jacques Jouineau performance – last available in EMI’s late, lamented Poulenc Edition – is largely missing, and, without wishing to seem precious about it, the choir’s French accents are not terribly convincing either.


The Mass is better – indeed this is an excellent performance of Poulenc’s a cappella masterpiece, the edgy rhythmic detailing of the Kyrie and Gloria pluckily projected. A special mention is due to Sasha Ockenden, soaring confidently in the fearfully exposed treble solos of the beautiful Agnus Dei. The Quatre petites prières and other shorter pieces are neatly executed, if occasionally a little reserved in impact. The four other works, somewhat arbitrarily chosen (why not more Poulenc?), are by Pierre Villette and Messiaen, whose

O sacrum convivium elicits the warmest, most sheerly enjoyable singing on the record. There is much in this recital to give pleasure and edification, though ultimately I’d personally turn to The Sixteen’s outstanding budget two-pack of Poulenc’s choral music on Virgin Classics, which offers a greater degree of technical security and a more carefully differentiated sense of idiom.

Volume 2 in this ‘Twentieth-Century Masters’ series is an all-British programme, spearheaded by two James MacMillan pieces (Christus Vincit, On the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin), both evincing the composer’s typically cutting clarity of thought, both eliciting lean, clear-toned performances from Higginbottom’s choir. Striking also is Jonathan Dove’s fluttering Ecce Beatem Lucem, playfully deploying echo effects, and intriguingly blending influences from the

French choral and American minimalist traditions.


Among the other selections (Weir, Holloway, O’Regan et al) it’s again Dove, in the quiet restraint and sensitively pliant word-setting of his Into Thy Hands, who specially impresses. The choir’s performances in this second volume are of uniformly high quality. Terry Blain