Poulenc: Half Monk - Half Rascal (CD Review - Music Web International, 2012)

It was the critic Claude Rostand, in 1950, who first adopted the phrase “moine ou voyou” to describe Francis Poulenc. It is translated here as “Half Monk/Half Rascal”, and though “moine” is certainly a monk, a “voyou” could easily be a more unsavoury character than a “rascal”. Rostand wanted to draw attention to the polarity between Poulenc’s devout Catholic faith and other aspects of his character. The epithet has stuck, but we really shouldn’t make too much of it. I don’t think that Poulenc had any more of a dual personality than many another composer; nor, indeed, than you or I. And though it is quite a pretty selling point, you can enjoy the sacred and secular music on this superb disc without giving either the monk or the rascal a second thought. 
It really is a superb disc, one of the finest collections of unaccompanied Poulenc choral music I have heard. The programme keeps the sexes - or at least the voices - apart for much of the time. The Quatre petites prières, for men’s voices, of which the longest is only a touch more than two minutes, are perfect examples of Poulenc’s melodic skill. The third, in particular, with its rather convoluted text, is so ravishing that the Lord could scarcely fail to hear the depth of feeling behind the words and notes. It is beautifully sung here; the quiet singing is perfect, but one might argue that Layton gives his singers a little too much head in the louder passages of so short and slight a work. Intonation is absolutely impeccable, and the vocal blend is perfect. The words, too, are very clear, with only the odd vowel, especially at the end of words such as “puisque” or “l’éternité”, betraying the fact that these are not native French speakers. The Laudes de Saint Antoine, also for men’s voices, inhabits a more austere world, as befits perhaps the Latin texts and the rather more robust messages contained therein. Previous comments about the singing hold good here, and indeed throughout the collection, with only what sounds like a slightly hesitant entry shortly before the end of the first piece. The one remaining sacred work is the exquisite Ave verum corpus, for women’s voices, and exquisitely sung. 
Poulenc’s secular choral music tends to be harder going, perhaps as much to do with his chosen texts as anything musical. Paul Eluard was a favourite author, Guillaume Apollinaire another: even in translation it’s not always easy to know what they were driving at. Even so, the composer’s response is always striking and apposite, even when it surprises us. The performance of the Sept Chansons is sensational. Virtuosity is much in evidence in the rather uncompromising third song, as it also is in the sixth, though does the accompanying “la-la-la” figuration not need to be a little louder than it is here? Listen the superb skill with which the different layers of the choral texture are managed in the fourth song, particularly near the beginning. We are also treated to some gorgeous solo singing in this song, as well as in the fifth, where the pianissimo are magical. 
Un soir de neige - strange to see its title so prosaically translated in the booklet as “A snowy evening” - is ostensibly a series of four miniature winter scenes, but the words are again by Eluard, and all kinds of other ideas creep in to accompany the bitter cold: war, life, death, freedom. The whole piece is over in less that eight minutes, but it certainly packs a punch. The first song opens with some remarkable unison singing from the sopranos, and the rest of the performance maintains this standard. It chills to the bone, as it should. (Incidentally, is Poulenc monk or rascal in this piece? Answer: neither.) 
The eight pieces that make up the Chansons françaises are perhaps a bit of an acquired taste. They are folk song arrangements, often quite free, and in general inhabit quite a different world from choral folk song arrangements by Holst, Moeran or Vaughan Williams. They are very inventive, with a wide range of choral texture, but one or two of them do have a verse or three too many. There is no denying, however, the ravishing beauty of La belle se sied au pied de la tour, or the fizzing energy of Les tisserands. The disc closes with Chanson à boire - Drinking Song - composed in 1922 for the Harvard Glee Club, which is the closest you’ll get to rascality on this disc. 
All this is beautifully recorded. The booklet contains an essay in English and French, introducing the composer and the programme in very general terms. The texts are provided, but in French first, then, on later pages, the English translations.

Reviewed by William Hedley
Music Web International

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