Poulenc: Half Monk - Half Rascal (CD Review - dailyclassicalmusic.com, 2012)

I was completely befuddled by the first words on the booklet cover: 'Half Monk' and 'Half Rascal'. Initially I thought of them as a couple of Scandinavian participants in the recording, and it was only when reading Claus Johansen (probably also Scandinavian) on the music itself that I came across Poulenc's remark that 'A critic has said that there are both a monk and a street urchin in me. That is an accurate description of my personality.' Then I understood, and partially agreed, though Poulenc was always far too boulevardwise ever to have been a 'rascal' or 'urchin'. And in 1936, during or after which nearly all this music was written, Poulenc reverted to the Catholicism of his earlier days.

Hence the heartfelt tributes to St Francis and St Antony of Padua, both for unaccompanied male voices. But there is quite enough secular music to preserve the half and half attribution. 'Tous les droits', for instance, even if not always spelt correctly, dates from that same crucial year.

It is a setting of words by Paul Eluard, whose poetry dominates the Sept Chansons (published as Op 81). Eluard was a founder of the surrealist movement and, much affected by the Spanish Civil War, joined the underground communists in wartime France to support the resistance.

Any setting of the Ave verum has to face very strong competition. There is above all Mozart's incomparable version written towards the end of his life. Whenever faced with a short space in a choral programme, I would slip it in as often as possible. And then there is Elgar's Op 2, given a misleadingly early opus number, but as serenely beautiful as anything he wrote. Which of the three composers had the weakest faith at the time it would be difficult to say for certain, but it is likely to have been Mozart. Like Elgar, Poulenc uses only female voices, and in his case they are unaccompanied.

The fourth of the Chansons françaises is about as 'rascally' as Poulenc here allows himself to become. It is a joyous and infective piece, with strong rhythmic drive and a delicious sense of humour. There can be no doubt that the Danish National Vocal Ensemble is Scandinavian, nor that their commitment to this music under Stephen Layton is total. There is much here to savour. I am particularly touched by the purple colour of the booklet, as a recently departed friend who happened to be devoted to this particular composer was always addressed by me as the 'Purple Poulenc'.

Reviewed by Robert Anderson

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