Poulenc: Stabat Mater

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4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

COMPOSERS: Poulenc
LABELS: Harmonia Mundi
ALBUM TITLE: Poulenc: Stabat Mater
WORKS: Stabat Mater; Sept répons des tenebres
PERFORMER: Carolyn Sampson (soprano); Cappella Amsterdam; Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir; Estonian National Symphony Orchestra/Daniel Reuss
CATALOGUE NO: HMC 902149

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The word ‘powerful’ is not one we naturally associate with Poulenc. But these two works, as recorded here, demonstrate what a long and eventful path he travelled from the jolly japes of the 1920s until his final decade (he died in 1963). Not that he renounced jollity – listen, for example, to the Gloria. But in middle age, he suffered from repeated depressions and embraced the more serious things in life, and in these two pieces the prospect of death.

The 47 singers of the two chamber choirs on this recording sound refined, sumptuous and forceful, making light of the considerable difficulties of intonation. The large, excellently recorded orchestra, meanwhile, gives us new insights into Poulenc’s textures, most notably the vicious brass writing in the Sept répons. From this, and from the equally amazing little Webernian coda to ‘Caligaverunt oculi mei’, we are tempted to guess that, had he lived, Poulenc might have surprised everyone with a highly personal extension of tonality.

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Overall, tempos are slow – every one of the 19 movements in the two works lasts longer here than in the Prêtre recordings of 1963 and 1983 – and in ‘Tenebrae factae sunt’ in the Sept répons this leads to Christ’s words from the cross losing a little of their inherent tension. Carolyn Sampson sings with warmth, even if she is incorporated more closely into the texture than Régine Crespin in 1963; and, sadly, I don’t think any modern soprano would dare to imitate Crespin’s dramatic swooping between the syllables! Still, these are vivid and, yes, powerful performances. Roger Nichols