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WORKS: Salve regina; Quatre motets pour un temps de pénitence; Litanies à la Vierge Noire; Quatre motets pour le temps de Noël; Un soir de neige; Ave verum corpus; Mass in G
PERFORMER: The Sixteen / Harry Christophers


In an age when the angel voices of my youth (Isobel Baillie and the two Elsies, Morison and Suddaby) no longer seem to be around, somehow Harry Christophers still manages to find them. We do not necessarily have to agree with the claim in Ned Rorem’s 1963 obituary of Poulenc – that ‘he has taken with him the best of what remained in musical France’ – to know that beauty, that oh-so-suspect quality in the modern world, was a central feature of his music; and The Sixteen provide us with beauty in generous quantities, together with elegant phrasing, clear words and immaculate tuning. 

But beauty is not the whole story. Poulenc described the Kyrie of the Mass as having ‘its almost savage side’ and the whole work as harking back to a time when unbaptised, and presumably untrained members of the church would sing the office with the priests. The rather bass-light balance of The Sixteen makes such savagery problematic, and certainly the second basses are not ‘bien en dehors’ (clearly distinct) in the Benedictus, at the point where Poulenc unhelpfully has them singing three octaves below the fortissimo sopranos. Also there’s one curious misreading in the fourth bar of the opening solo of the Agnus Dei, where the soprano sings the two crotchets before the minim as quavers (a reading also present in The Sixteen’s 1993 recording). I know of no source for this, and Poulenc’s favourite recording, conducted by Robert Shaw in 1950, obeys the written crotchets.

Roger Nichols


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