Poulenc: Half Monk - Half Rascal (CD Review - Fanfare USA, 2012)

The title of this album, Half Monk, Half Rascal —originally coined as “half monk, half thug” by critic Claude Rostand in 1950—sums up perfectly the two personalities of Francis Poulenc, a man as devoted to his Catholicism as he was to his gayness, though not necessarily in that order. Poulenc himself is quoted as having said, “You know that I am as sincere in my faith, without any messianic screamings, as I am in my Parisian sexuality.”

One has to love Claus Johansen’s seriocomic album note in which he declares that “Poulenc wrote modern music but couldn’t help creating melodies,” as if somehow the two are incompatible. It was largely the deaths of Poulenc’s close friend, the composer and critic Pierre-Octave Ferroud, in a gruesome car accident in 1935, and fellow artist Christian Bérard in 1949 that jump-started the long-neglected spiritual side of Poulenc’s persona and gave rise to much of the exquisite a cappella choral music on this disc.

The Seven Chansons, for example, though not prayers to saints or based on liturgical texts, as is the Eucharistic hymn Ave verum corpus , were composed in 1936, the year after the Ferroud tragedy, and every one of the seven numbers is a deeply sorrowful metaphoric contemplation on the pain of loss. The poetry by Paul Éluard and Guillaume Apollinaire, even in English translation, is incredibly rich in symbols of mortality—“Fighting with the hands of the clock,” “A pebble among the pebbles,” “The shortest day of the year and the Eskimo night.” Poulenc picked well, and his ear for the words is matched by his ear for the music to which he set them.

From late 1936 onward, a stream of religiously inspired works poured from Poulenc’s pen in two phases, the first following Ferroud’s death—the Litanies à la Vierge Noire de Rocamadour (1936), the Mass in G Major (1937), the Exultate Deo and Salve Regina (1941), and the Quatre petites prières de Saint François d’Assise on this disc (1948)—and the second phase following Bérard’s death—the Stabat Mater (1951), the Ave verum corpus on the current disc (1952), the Laudes of Saint Antoine of Padoue , also on the current disc (1959), the magnificent Gloria (1959), and the Sept répons des ténèbres (1961), one of the composer’s last works. Of course, not all of Poulenc’s vocal music composed during these years is of a religious inspiration or subtext. The eight songs that make up the Chansons françaises of 1945–46 are lighthearted and filled with the sort of sexual double entendre reminiscent of the late 16th-century English madrigal—the kinds of songs that earned Poulenc his “rascal” epithet. And finally, the Chanson à boire (Drinking Song), dating from 1922, is the earliest work on the disc, written by the 23-year-old composer during his libertine days of frequenting the Parisian music halls where he was exposed to the “irreverent, flippant aesthetic stance of Les Six.”

I would suggest listening to this disc the first time through without following the texts just to savor the variety of sonorities, the textures and flavors, Poulenc achieves with his choral scoring. All of these works are a cappella , but they differ considerably in the combinations of voices for which they’re written. The Seven Chansons for Mixed Chorus , as is obvious from the title, is scored for a choir of male and female voices. But the Quatre petites prières de Saint François d’Assise is written for men’s chorus, while the Ave verum corpus is for women’s voices only. In the Chansons françaises , Poulenc mixes it up, so to speak, scoring six of the eight songs for mixed choir and two of them, Nos. 4 and 6, “Clic, Clac, dansez sabots” and “La Belle si nous étions,” for male voices only. The Laudes of Saint Antoine of Padoue presents yet another interesting variation; it, too, is for men’s chorus only, but the work is written in three voices with parts for tenor, bass I, and bass II.

A total of 18 members—10 men and eight women—constitutes the Danish National Vocal Ensemble. Formed only as recently as 2007, the group has been acclaimed as one of the most impressive choral ensembles before the public today. The group has performed under a number of conductors; at the time this recording was made between 2008 and 2009, it was led by Stephen Layton. As of 2011, the baton has passed to Olaf Boman.

All of the works on this disc have been recorded a number of times over, most of them by Harry Christophers with The Sixteen and Richard Marlowe with the Cambridge Trinity College Choir. While I have the highest regard for both conductors and their choral societies, there’s something about the English sound that, in my opinion, doesn’t quite capture the French fragrance and voluptuousness of Poulenc’s writing. The Danes sing with a basting of foie gras that seems especially enhancing of the richness and complex flavors of this music.

This is a really beautiful program beautifully recorded to optimize the articulateness of the singers and the internal balances among the voices. I can’t imagine these works being performed more satisfyingly than they are here, and whether you’re unfamiliar with Poulenc’s vocal music or not, you owe yourself the treat of this release.

Reviewed by Jerry Dubins 
Fanfare USA

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