Poulenc – Figure Humaine

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5.0 out of 5 star rating 5.0

LABELS: Signum
WORKS: Figure Humaine; Mass in G; Litanies à la Vierge Noire; Salve Regina; Un soir de neige; Quatre petites prières de Saint François d’Assise
PERFORMER: Tenebrae/Nigel Short


Nowadays Poulenc would probably have been on a regime of anti-depressants; and while this might have made life easier for him, it could also have deprived us of some of his most moving and powerful compositions.

The fault-lines, if one may so call them, in his make-up show most clearly in his choral music, where lush chords, often reminiscent of operetta or even American musical comedy, lie alongside fierce, jagged unisons and chromatic concoctions that test a choir’s mettle to the utmost.

Tenebrae is equal to every challenge. The tuning is impeccable, the phrasing intelligent and never forced, the balance always adjusted to the demands of Poulenc’s textures, which are frequently not as straightforward as they look on the page.

Not least, the sopranos float ethereally in the more lyrical moments – we know from Poulenc’s letters over the Gloria that he did not want beefy vibratos, let alone the sort of noises described by Fauré as emanating from ‘old she-goats who have never known love’. The demanding top E at the end of Figure humaine crowns the work as it should.


One of the things that comes over from these superb performances is a sense of fragility: in the midst of life we are in death. Partly this is due to the group’s wide dynamic range (in absolute accord with Poulenc’s scores) which accentuates the music’s unpredictability mentioned above: in the Litanies à la Vierge noire, quasi-plainsong supplication is suddenly shredded by searing dissonances. A disc to be treasured. Roger Nichols