Our rating 
5.0 out of 5 star rating 5.0

COMPOSERS: Szymanowski/Poulenc
LABELS: Telarc
WORKS: Stabat mater; Stabat mater
PERFORMER: Christine Goerke (soprano), Marietta Simpson (mezzo-soprano), Victor Ledbetter (baritone)Atlanta SO & Chorus/Robert Shaw
This is an intelligent coupling of two great devotional works of the 20th century. Both could be dubbed ‘neo-medieval’ in that they are steeped in the church music practice of the 12th and 13th centuries.


Poulenc’s setting was composed more than twenty years after Szymanowski’s inter-war masterpiece. Several of its 12 sections share features with the French composer’s better-known Gloria and Organ Concerto. This is an exciting, beautifully disciplined performance, sustained by splendid brass and lower strings from an orchestra alert to the challenge of its accompanying role.

But it is the Szymanowski, sung in Polish, which provides the surprises. Gone is much of the lushness of the composer’s wartime compositions. Shaw’s reading achieves a purity and clarity which affect players, chorus and soloists alike. He lets the simple, thinned textures speak for themselves, unadorned. The soprano opening is less desolate than Barbara Zagorzanka on Marco Polo, and more imprecatory, but it compares well with Stefania Woytowicz on Koch, and is preferable to Elzbieta Szmytka on EMI.


One disappointment is the slightly muddy central duets, which EMI carries off so well. But the mezzo, Marietta Simpson, is admirable on her own. The chorus’s shifts are so subtle, the whispers beneath bass solo (close to Szymanowski’s opera King Roger) so dramatic, and the closing two minutes of postponed Mahlerian cadence so powerful and atmospheric, that this dedicated reading will give you great pleasure. Roderic Dunnett