No 1: Timor et tremor
No 2: Vinea mea electa
No 3: Tenebrae factae sunt
No 4: Tristis est anima mea
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).
from notes by Meurig Bowen © 2008