'From the very outset of the Gloria it's clear that this is a performance of real distinction … The 38 voices of Polyphony are augmented by 31 from Trinity College, Cambridge, while an unusually hefty contingent of orchestral players makes up the Britten Sinfonia on the disc. What results is not only music-making of immense power and vibrancy - but also an ability, brilliantly directed by Layton, to capture Poulenc's 'half hooligan, half monk' musical persona … Then, in the final chorus of the Gloria, after the boisterous start, we have a moment of profound sanctity and another, crowned with incredible delicacy by Susan Gritton, of mouth-watering enchantment … It is the vivid sense of unfettered joy in the Gloria and the matchless intensity of feeling revealed in the motets that make this such a gloriously distinguished disc' (Gramophone)
'Poulenc's riotously wild, spiky and humorous Gloria is given a marvellously fresh interpretation here by Polyphony and the choir of Trinity College, with Susan Gritton a glorious ethereal presence, floating above the texture like a gossamer-winged angel. But perhaps the real interest in this disc lies in the more unfamiliar motets. Each is an exquisite example of Poulenc's daring choral writing, handled here by Polyphony with the same subtlety and skill they brought to their Bruckner Hyperion disc last year' (The Observer)
'This is a real treat. Polyphony brings its characteristic incisiveness, precision and evenness of tone to Poulenc's unaccompanied Lenten and Christmas motets, Salve regina and Exultate Deo. But it is the account of the Gloria … that makes this a real must-buy. For this, Polyphony is joined by the Choir of Trinity College, Cambridge, where Stephen Layton presides as director of music, along with the taut playing of the Britten Sinfonia. To cap it all, Susan Gritton sears the heart in her solos, while the church recording gives the whole enterprise a reverent halo' (Daily Telegraph)
'Stephen Layton's tight control of his forces, both choral and orchestral, lends impeccable ensemble and heart-thumping excitement - has the opening tutti ever had such punch? Soprano Susan Gritton is superb, too, in her committed, soaring performances. The combined choirs of Trinity College, Cambridge and pro group Polyphony are astounding as a virtuoso choral unit … The motets on Layton's recording are a masterclass in choral singing' (BBC Music Magazine)
'This beautifully produced disc … The best-known work here is the Gloria, in which Stephen Layton and his choir do not attempt to disguise the work's debt to Stravinsky, and in which Susan Gritton's soaring soprano adds the finishing touches … This collection is all exquisitely done' (The Guardian)
'The performers here leap out of the speakers with this unashamedly ebullient account of Poulenc's Gloria' (Gramophone)
'The Gloria … radiates a kind of blazing intensity second to none. Quite how Stephen Layton gets the singers of his hand-picked choir Polyphony to generate such white heat in a draughty North London chruch on a wet mid-week morning I do not know, but he does … This Gloria is recorded throughout with wonderful vocal and instrumental clarity and definition: precision of ensemble and intonation is absolute, the sound spellbinding - the dynamic range is breathtaking, but the recording has no trouble coping. It's an exhilarating listen; and on top of all that, Layton's chosen soloist is a joy, too. Susan Gritton soars ethereally above the stave in the two 'Domine Deus' movements, her sweetness of tone and so-discreet portamento ideal for Poulenc … The more sombre mood of the four unaccompanied Lenten motets is superbly caught: the effect in, for instance, the wonderful 'Vinea mea electa' is almost heart-rending, a powerful but despairing cry from the heart. There have been various fine versions of the Gloria over the years … I doubt if many of them can hold a candle to this one' (International Record Review)
'A thrilling acoustic captures Layton and his forces revelling in Poulenc's punchy rhythms and pungent harmonies. Soloist Susan Gritton is … soaring and ecstatic in the 'Qui sedes' … It's all superbly performed' (Classic FM Magazine *****)
'Layton's recording comes very close to perfection and certainly represents one of the 'must-have' CDs of the year so far' (MusicalCriticism.com)
'Conductor Stephen Layton's sentient performance is graced by Susan Gritton's ethereal soprano solos and rounded off with some of Poulenc's more solemn a cappella motets' (The Independent on Sunday)
'It's not that more choirs wouldn't love to perform these works, but for many they are just over the line of difficulty--demanding an extraordinarily solid vocal technique and an ensemble with exceptional sensitivity to expressive details… Not surprisingly, Polyphony joins the short list of excellent choirs who've recorded the motets with first-rate performances… energy and spontaneity along with equal vocal virtuosity' (ClassicsToday.com, USA)
'Poulenc became one of the great sacred choral composers of the twentieth century. Gloria (1959) for mixed choir, soprano and orchestra is an example of his mastery of synthesizing a restrained yet joyful ecstasy with twentieth century spikiness. By reducing the forces in this recording, Stephen Layton reveals their dissonance without mitigating their heartfelt religious spirit. The result is a freshness and clarity that sheds new light on this work. Susan Gritton’s soprano voice … soars above the choral forces in a way that emphasizes the work’s ardor. The recording, made in All Hallows Church, Gospel Oak, London, is a perfect combination of immediacy and religious resonance that clarifies the musical forces without lessening ambience. This is a significant and groundbreaking recording of this great work' (Audiophile Audition, USA)
'Trying to decide where best to start in praising this disc was my most difficult task, as everyone involved sounds truly involved. Stephen Layton is a marvelous conductor; not only are his tempos good and his textures clear, but the Britten Sinfonia plays with real gusto. His vocal group, Polyphony, and the trinity College choir sing not only with an excellent vocal blend but also with emotional involvement…And soprano Susan Gritton…sings with tremendous feeling. This is a truly alive recording … this one can definitely hold its own' (Fanfare)
'If there's a recording out there that does more to honor Poulenc's intentions in his spiky, delightfully off-centred setting of the church's ode to the glory of God, I haven't heard it … Domine Deus and other introspective interludes exude real spiritual intensity, the soprano is terrific, and the choir lets the emotions fly with total commitment. Hyperion catches it all … Without question, this heads straight to the head of the Poulenc Gloria class' (American Record Guide)
Salve regina [4'44]
Timor et tremor [3'01]
Vinea mea electa [3'50]
Tenebrae factae sunt [4'05]
Tristis est anima mea [3'08]
O magnum mysterium [3'15]
Videntes stellam [2'31]
Hodie Christus natus est [1'59]
Exultate Deo [2'44]
Stephen Layton and Polyphony continue to blaze a trail as great interpreters and dazzling performers of a wide range of choral music. Their recent disc of Bruckner’s Mass in E minor and motets was acclaimed as a benchmark recording. For their latest Hyperion disc they turn to some of the most bewitching and unusual, yet well-loved, choral works of the twentieth century.
Poulenc’s choral music is a deep expression both of his faith and of his unique musical language. In the various motets, the music responds to the composer’s studies of Bach, Monteverdi, Palestrina and Gabrieli, but is always stylistically progressive. Prominently featured are Poulenc’s distinctive and often ingenious chord progressions. Each motet has its own delightfully etched personality.
Poulenc’s Gloria is one of his most enduringly appealing works. In some ways straightforwardly pious, it is also tinged with mischievous irreverence and a sense of rollocking enjoyment. ‘When I wrote this piece’, Poulenc famously recalled, ‘I had in mind those frescoes by Gozzoli where the angels stick out their tongues; and also some serious Benedictine monks I had once seen revelling in a game of football.’ This recording by the Britten Sinfonia, The Choir of Trinity College, Cambridge, Polyphony and the soprano soloist Susan Gritton under Stephen Layton brings out all these aspects in a classic performance.
Other recommended albums
Take Chabrier’s dominant sevenths, Ravel’s major sevenths, Fauré’s straight triads, Debussy’s minor sixths, Mussorgsky’s augmented fourths. Filter them, as Satie did, through the added-sixth chords of vaudeville … blending a pint of Couperin with a quart of Stravinsky, and you get the harmony of Poulenc — Ned Rorem, Opera News, 1977
Two horrific, fatal car accidents in the mid-1930s had a huge and unusual impact on twentieth-century music. One involved the heir to the fortune of the Basel-based Hoffmann-La Roche pharmaceutical company. His car stalled on a level-crossing in October 1932, and a train rammed into him. Two years later, his widow remarried; her new husband was the young Swiss conductor Paul Sacher, who subsequently used the vast amounts of money he had married into to commission countless orchestral gems—Richard Strauss’s Metamorphosen, Bartók’s Divertimento and Stravinsky’s Concerto in D to mention just three.
The second accident—a car decapitating a pedestrian in the Hungarian town of Debrecen in August 1936—profoundly affected a close friend of the victim, French composer and critic Pierre-Octave Ferroud. ‘Absolutely stupefied’ by the news, that friend—Francis Poulenc—made a pilgrimage soon afterwards to the ancient shrine of the Black Virgin at Rocamadour, on the banks of the Dordogne river. ‘Pondering on the fragility of the spirit’, Poulenc recalled, ‘the life of the spirit attracted me anew. Rocamadour led me back to the faith of my childhood.’ And the result, musically, from a composer so far attracted to the secular was a steady stream of religious works—beginning with the Litanies à la Vierge Noire that year, and proceeding right up until his death nearly three decades later.
Without this accident, without what amounted to a born-again moment at Rocamadour, would Poulenc have reconnected anyway with his Catholic roots? Might the monkish side of Poulenc’s famously dual personality (‘le moine et le voyou’—‘half bad boy, half monk’, as he was described by Claude Rostand in 1950) have asserted itself without such tragic prompting? However intriguing this speculation may or may not be, the music remains: reflective, sumptuous and uplifting, attributable to no one else but the man whom American composer Ned Rorem described appealingly as ‘the sum of his obvious parts—dapper and ungainly, wicked and pious, a slipshod perfectionist’.
Poulenc’s first work for choral voices came early on, a drinking song composed for the Harvard Glee Club in 1922. It was an unsuitable text for Prohibition-era USA, and he didn’t get to hear the piece until 1950. But in the early 1920s he was taking lessons with Charles Koechlin, whose insistence on studying renaissance and early baroque counterpoint made its mark subsequently:
Having soon sensed that, like many Latins, I was more of a harmonist than a contrapuntist, he had me harmonize Bach chorale themes in four parts while I continued working on my contrapuntal exercises. This work, which fascinated me, had a decisive influence on me. It is due to these chorales that I acquired a feeling for choral music.
But that feeling, apart from some choruses in the 1923 Diaghilev ballet Les Biches, didn’t assert itself properly until after Rocamadour. The Litanies à la Vierge Noire, for upper voices, featured organ accompaniment and a certain anguished dissonance. The a cappella Mass in G, written the following year, was cooler and purer in its harmonic palette. And it was this a cappella style, following the choral/orchestral surrealist settings Sécheresses of 1937, that Poulenc fully settled into with his Quatre motets pour un temps de pénitence in the second half of 1938 and early 1939.
The third and fourth in Poulenc’s ordering were written first, and they are the more stylistically progressive. Tenebrae factae sunt—dedicated to the great compositional mentor Nadia Boulanger, who conducted the first performance in December 1938 of his Organ Concerto—is a collage of abrupt mood-shifts. There is no other moment on this disc to compare with the sopranos’ stark chromatic descent on the words ‘exclamavit Jesus’, the angular, similarly chromatic phrase for ‘Et inclinato capite’ first heard in the tenors, or the tight set of descending parallel chords for the word ‘ait’. Equally unusual, in the context of this recording’s repertoire, are moments of the fourth motet Tristis est anima mea. With particular responsiveness to the text, Poulenc creates a hushed, fleeting disquiet for ‘Vos fugam capietis’ (marked vif et inquiet and mystérieux), rare semiquaver melismas on ‘et ego vadam’, and the only instance here of nine-part divisi writing on the final page. All of this points towards Poulenc’s twelve-part tour de force of a cappella writing, Figure humaine from 1943.
The first two Lenten motets, Timor et tremor and Vinea mea electa, create their own very finely articulated moods, though within more modest musical parameters. So much of what was to become Poulenc’s trademark choral style is established here: the sharply defined dynamic contrasts, phrase-by-phrase; block-like shifts from one textural grouping to another; a persistently unsettled meter, with 3/4 or 5/4 bars regularly cutting across an apparently flowing 4/4; and distinctive, often ingenious chord progressions. Timor et tremor, appropriately, is an edgy, dark imprecation, while Vinea mea electa contrasts the tender opening (marked excessivement doux on its return) with the anguish and outburst of ‘ut me crucifigeres’ (sung with calm resignation) going into ‘et Barrabam dimitteres’ (a sudden forte).
In 1941, midway between the Lenten motets and Figure humaine, Poulenc composed Exultate Deo and Salve regina. The second of these has a sustained calm, never deviates from a simple four-part texture, and perhaps most strikingly, in an understated work, uses up the final nineteen bars intoning only the words ‘dulcis Virgo Maria’—dans le style d’une complainte (an expression of grief, and perhaps still Poulenc’s grief at the Rocamadour shrine for his friend Ferroud?). Exultate Deo responds suitably to its jubilant text, and features a rare case for Poulenc of paired, imitative entries at the outset. Those studies of Bach chorales with Koechlin set him along a predominantly chordal, homophonic path when writing for voices, but here his knowledge of music by Monteverdi, Palestrina and Gabrieli briefly shines through. This piece breezes through some unlikely keys in the middle—from its core A major, through F sharp major to C major to C sharp major. It is fluent, cheeky, listen-to-what-I-can-do writing. The motet’s climax, on the words ‘Buccinate in neomenia tuba’, features a remarkable effect with rumbling lower voices in parallel triads, and a final shriek of marcato dissonance whose echo collides with the grand, solemn coda.
A decade later, and following the male-voice ‘Francis of Assisi’ motets in 1948 and the orchestrally accompanied Stabat mater of 1951, Poulenc composed another quartet of unaccompanied motets. Inevitably shaking off the austerity of the Lenten motets, his Quatre motets pour le temps de Noël instead are full of Christmas wonder and joy. New to these motets is the instruction for certain voice parts to sing with ‘bouche fermée’ (closed mouth, humming), providing smooth and gentle backing to more prominent lines. Poulenc also favours doubling of lines at the octave—and sometimes the double octave—as an expressive device, notably in Quem vidistis pastores dicite, and the mid-points of Videntes stellam and Hodie Christus natus est. Each motet has its own delightfully etched personality, and each is unified by the piquant harmonies, the carefully graded dynamic markings and regular, almost mechanical placing of rests to punctuate each successive phrase.
Poulenc’s text setting has a characteristic perversity, often stressing syllables that in speech rhythm would be unstressed. It isn’t quite as arch and anti-musical as Stravinsky brilliantly effected in the Mass and Symphony of Psalms, but it heads in that direction. One such case in the fourth Christmas motet is the recurring line, in a 5/4 bar, ‘Glo-ri-a in ex-cel-sis De-o’.
Having set those words back in 1937 in his a cappella Mass, Poulenc was to find himself setting them again in 1959—this time adding a beat and partially ironing out the peculiar syllabic emphasis (3/4: Glo-ri-a … in/ex-cel-sis De-o). The Gloria came about as the result of a commission from the Serge Koussevitzky Foundation. At a talk in the Club des Trois Centres in Paris, just a year before his death, Poulenc recalled how he had settled on a work for chorus, orchestra and soprano soloist:
First, they asked me for a symphony. I told them I was not made for symphonies. Then they asked me for an organ concerto. I told them I had already written one and I didn’t want to write another. Finally they said: ‘All right, then do what you like!’
But in a letter to the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s principal conductor—and Koussevitzky’s successor—Charles Münch, Poulenc was still unsure in May 1959 whether he could indeed do what he liked: ‘I have suggested writing a Gloria for mixed choir, soprano solo and orchestra, 20 to 25 minutes in duration. You may perhaps be able to sway the balance in my favour if there is any hesitation.’
An image we might have of Poulenc being the urbane dilettante wrongly hides the fact that he was a meticulous craftsman, and often deeply insecure. As someone who took four years to fashion the Organ Concerto to his satisfaction, and who suffered a nervous breakdown during the writing of his opera Dialogues des Carmélites, composition of the Gloria in the second half of 1959 was a struggle too. In August of that year, he described it in a letter to Pierre Bernac as ‘a problem work … I am working and reworking each bar in every conceivable way’. And at the end of December that year, he wrote to Geneviève Sienkiewicz: ‘When I played you those few bits from it, your reaction encouraged me a great deal. I badly needed this as no other work has posed so many problems for me.’
As Poulenc’s charming, witty letters to Bernac from Boston’s Sheraton Plaza Hotel in January 1961 demonstrate, the rehearsal process for the premiere was initially a shaky affair too:
… as for the Gloria, if I had not come here, what peculiar music would have been heard! Dear, adorable, exquisite Charlie [Münch] had understood precisely nothing … Arriving late for the first rehearsal of the choir, I heard something so unlike me that my legs almost failed me on the staircase … all those worthy Protestants were singing sharp and shrill (especially the women) as they do in London, with that ‘Oh! My good Lord’ quality. All Münch’s tempi were wrong—all too fast naturally … I tell you, I wanted to run a mile.
Things had changed, though, by the final rehearsal two days later:
The rehearsal yesterday was extraordinary. Münch suddenly inspired: as for [soprano soloist Adele] Addison, she drives you wild, she is sheer heaven, with that warm Negro purity … Everyone was full of enthusiasm … The Gloria is without doubt the best thing I have done. The orchestration is marvellous (the ending, among other things, is astonishing) … It has given me a confidence that I badly needed.
Poulenc’s devout faith, he said, resembled that of a simple country priest, and the Gloria is fresh and straightforward throughout. Just as his Organ Concerto, to which he assigned quasi-religious status, has moments of fairground thrill alongside its gothic churchiness, the Gloria is never overly reverent. ‘When I wrote this piece’, Poulenc famously recalled, ‘I had in mind those frescoes by Gozzoli where the angels stick out their tongues; and also some serious Benedictine monks I had once seen revelling in a game of football.’
Talking to an American journalist around the time of the premiere, Poulenc also described the Gloria as having ‘very clear, primary colours—rude and violent like the Provence chapel of Matisse’. So trumpets and horns are resplendent in the heavily accented baroque-like fanfares of the opening or the organ-like explosions of the final section, and he creates distinctive alloys of woodwinds that recall Stravinsky’s Symphonies of Wind Instruments. Even his writing for strings, which he relished least of all, shines briefly at the central point of unearthly stillness in the Laudamus te. For someone so unconfident of his orchestral knack, he could indeed be justifiably proud.
Stravinsky is present elsewhere—the ‘wrong-note’ parallel ninths in the Laudamus te, the trip-ups of ever-present metre changes. But High Fidelity magazine’s reviewer of the work’s debut recording in August 1961 heard other composers in the mix: ‘The Gloria sounds like a mixture of Saint-Saëns and Carl Orff …’, he wrote. And any question of whether this comparison was meant warmly was answered by the rest of the sentence, a deft and supercilious piece of damnation with faint praise: ‘… although its lovely, quiet ending recalls the fact that Poulenc was once capable of writing beautiful music.’
Ouch! But Poulenc described himself as ‘wildly eclectic’—presumably proudly so. And the influence of grand opera—or Verdi’s Requiem—casts a dramatic shadow in moments such as the forte declamations of Domine Deus. Poulenc was, after all, someone who acknowledged in his dedication of Dialogues des Carmélites the debt of Verdi, Debussy, Mussorgsky and Monteverdi; whose letters describe with relish the Met’s Trovatore with Leontyne Price and Franco Corelli alongside the ‘unsurpassable trio’ of Tebaldi, Gobbi and di Stefano in a Tosca at La Scala; and the soloist in both the European premiere of the Gloria and the debut recording was Rosanna Carteri, a dramatic soprano whose calling-card role Desdemona had featured in a recent 1958 film version of Otello alongside Mario del Monaco.
So the Gloria manages to be both operatic and pious, frivolous and contrite, lyrical and spiky. Although spiced with perfectly calculated stabs of dissonance, it is gloriously backward-looking and conservative for a work written when Boulez and Stockhausen were already making their mark. It is less ambitious and profound than its close contemporary, the War Requiem of Benjamin Britten, his ‘dear brother across the Channel’. But with its moments of sumptuous, enveloping ecstasy and uncomplicated good humour, its appeal endures.
Poulenc’s final choral work, less successful, was the Sept répons des ténèbres. ‘With the Gloria and the Stabat mater’ Poulenc commented shortly before his death, ‘I think I have three good religious works. May they spare me a few days of purgatory, if I do narrowly avoid going to hell.’
Meurig Bowen © 2008