WORKS: Mass in G; Quatre motets pour le temps de Noël; Litanies à la vierge noire: Notre dame de Rocamadour; Quatre petites prières de Saint François d’Assise; Quatre motets pour un temps de pénitence
PERFORMER: Choir of Westminster Cathedral/James O’Donnell
CATALOGUE NO: CDA66664 DDD
Poulenc’s music is as steeped in the Catholic tradition as Palestrina. It was with the Litanies that the composer returned to the religious fold in the mid-Thirties, deeply traumatised by a friend’s tragic death in a car accident.
The Litanies’ invocations are pierced by an anguish that makes them some of the most searing pieces in the repertoire. The same can be said of the Mass. Into his own modern style Poulenc absorbs plainsong, medieval organum and a troubadour-like French folk idiom, alternately sad and joyous like the two faces of a clown, merging the sacred with the soil to produce music of deep, passionate conviction.
The Westminster boys display an uncanny empathy with these miniature masterpieces. Their musicianship shines through every carefully measured phrase and dynamic. Their brittle sound – here like a plaintive oboe, at other times more akin to a crumhorn, or some awesome tolling bell – could not be more apt. Their French enunciation is impeccable. The Agnus Dei solo is in the Aled Jones class.
The men, too, rise to the occasion: in their beautifully pitched Four Prayers of St Francis one senses a new King’s Singers in the making. Hyperion’s well-focused recording catches the character and quality of individual voices especially well.
For those who prefer their Poulenc with women’s voices on the top line, there is also the evocative choir of Trinity College, Cambridge (Conifer), or the distinctive readings by The Sixteen (Virgin). Roderic Dunnett