Poulenc: Figure humaine

Our rating 
5.0 out of 5 star rating 5.0

LABELS: Channel Classics
WORKS: Figure humaine; Mass in G; Sept chansons; Un soir de neige
PERFORMER: Swedish Radio Choir/Peter Dijkstra

It’s received wisdom that Figure humaine, the pro-Resistance cantata that had to stay secret, is a Poulenc masterpiece. The irresistible surge of a virtuoso, double, six-part choir in its final ode to liberty constitutes one of the great inspirations and challenges of 20th-century music. But must his other settings of Paul Eluard in Un soir de neige and the Sept chansons exist in its shadow? Not on the strength of this beautifully presented collection, whose precision and humanity elevate many items to its level.
Take the hushed, dense chords and superimpositions in ‘Tous les droits’ and ‘Marie’ (this is a Guillaume Apollinaire poem ) from the Sept chansons: a feat of aural imagination and overtone awareness, made flesh with extraordinary fine tuning and expressive judgment.
The choir director affirms too, in the booklet, that the recording’s microphone technique catches just the mix of individual character and blended ensemble that he aims for. The Mass, performed with unusual power as well as the expected gentle lucidity, gives the CD an arresting start, and Figure humaine is properly the climax, its closing high E a calm anticipation of triumph rather than a desperate shriek. All the top professional choirs tackle Figure humaine.
Both Accentus (Naïve, reviewed September 2001) and Tenebrae (Signum, reviewed August 2010) are a technical match for the Swedes: Accentus’s Poulenc sounds intensely French; the Tenebrae, a 2011 BBC Music Magazine Award nominee, is perhaps a touch cold and brilliant for some tastes. The couplings overlap differently, but to have all four works you can confidently choose this new release. Robert Maycock