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Hyperion Records

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The Closed Eyes (1890) by Odilon Redon (1840-1916)
Musée d'Orsay, Paris / Lauros / Giraudon / Bridgeman Art Library, London
Track(s) taken from CDA67623
Recording details: April 2007
All Hallows, Gospel Oak, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Adrian Peacock
Engineered by Mike Hatch
Release date: March 2008
Total duration: 23 minutes 55 seconds

'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 … the performers here leap out of the speakers with this unashamedly ebullient account of Poulenc's Gloria' (Gramophone)

'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)

'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' (The Daily Telegraph)

'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)

'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)

'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)

'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)

'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)

'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, 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)

'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)

'Layton's recording comes very close to perfection and certainly represents one of the 'must-have' CDs of the year so far' (Musical Criticism.com)

Gloria
composer
second half of 1959
author of text
Ordinary of the Mass

Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
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.’

from notes by Meurig Bowen © 2008

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