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Poulenc, Kodály & Janáček: Kyrie

St John's College Choir Cambridge, Andrew Nethsingha (conductor) Detailed performer information
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Label: Signum Classics
Recording details: July 2016
St John's College Chapel, Cambridge, United Kingdom
Produced by Chris Hazell
Engineered by Simon Eadon
Release date: September 2017
Total duration: 63 minutes 29 seconds

Three twentieth-century choral masterpieces in new recordings from one of Cambridge's most prestigious colleges. The choir's previous album (of works by Jonathan Harvey) received the 2017 BBC Music Magazine Choral Award.


‘The treble voices of St John’s bring an ineffably poised gravity … quintessential Janáček from an unlikely source’ (Gramophone)
Mass in G Francis Poulenc (1899-1963)
‘May God keep me away from gloomy saints!’ prayed Saint Teresa: and Francis Poulenc, characteristically, inscribed those words on the title page of his opera Dialogues des Carmélites. The critic Charles Rostand described Poulenc as ‘moine ou voyou’: part monk, part…well, there’s no precise translation, though something between ‘rascal’ and ‘hooligan’ comes close. Poulenc happily accepted the description. He saw no contradiction between sincere religious belief, and the carefree, sexy frivolity of the music that had made his name in 1920s Paris. But by the mid-1930s he was looking for something more. He found it one afternoon in 1936 at the shrine of the Black Virgin of Rocamadour, in an instant of revelation that, he said, ‘had the effect of restoring me to the faith of my childhood’.

He began his Litanies à la Vierge Noire that same night; the Mass in G followed the next summer. It was written during August 1937 at a rented apartment in the village of Avost, near Autun in Burgundy. He intended it for the ‘marvellous’ Choeurs de Lyon, who’d premiered his Sept chansons, but as his renewed faith intensified, he started to apply it retrospectively to his whole life: he dedicated the Mass ‘to the memory of my father’, who had died in 1917. But while the voice he found in the Mass is unmistakably more spare, more clear, and more technically complex than any vocal music he’d written up to that time, it’s equally unmistakably the work of the witty, sensuous master-craftsman we know as Francis Poulenc. ‘My religion is that of Bernanos, of St John of the Cross or of St Teresa of Avila’ he explained to Rostand ‘I like an austerity that smells of orange-blossom or jasmine.’

And those are the terms in which he described his Mass. ‘As my ancestors are from Aveyron, that’s to say mountain and Mediterranean people, the Romanesque style has naturally been my favourite. So I tried to compose this act of faith, which is the essence of the Mass, in this rough, direct style. The roughness is particularly striking in the opening Kyrie, but don’t forget that in the early Church those who had not been baptised were allowed to sing it with the priest. This explains the almost savage side of my Mass.’

The Gloria bounds upwards (writing of his later orchestral Gloria, Poulenc recalled the sight of a group of Benedictine monks playing football). He omits the Credo. ‘In the Sanctus I thought of the mingled heads of angels in Gozzoli’s fresco in the Riccardi Palace in Florence. It’s a vocal carillon.’ (Poulenc doesn’t mention here that one of Gozzoli’s angels is sticking its tongue out.) The Benedictus translates the lush harmonies of a disciple of Debussy into a language of divine grace.

‘As for the final Agnus Dei, sung by the soprano in the high register, it’s the symbol of the Christian soul, confidently looking forward to life in Heaven…forgive my immodesty, but it’s without question one of the pieces in which I’ve most completely realised my intentions.’

Missa Brevis Zoltán Kodály (1882-1967)
Although everyone in Hungary knew that the Red Army was coming, few in Budapest at Christmas 1944 seem to have realised just how close it was. A performance of Aida went ahead at the Opera as scheduled on the evening of 23 December, but Soviet tanks were already in the suburbs and the Buda Hills and by 26 December, the city was surrounded. Trams stopped, gas and water ceased, food ran out, and as the German occupying forces blew up the Danube bridges, the entire city became a battlefield whose scars can still be seen today. Amidst savage street-to-street fighting, and under constant bombardment, some 38,000 civilians were killed or starved during the 50-day siege before the city surrendered unconditionally on 13 February 1945.

Two days earlier, in the cloakroom of the Opera House, and with gunfire at times threatening to drown the performance, a choir of surviving company members accompanied by a harmonium had given the world premiere of Kodály’s Missa Brevis. For several weeks, Kodály and his wife Emma had sheltered from the fighting in the air-raid shelter beneath the Opera. There, he’d completed the Missa Brevis while the fighting raged: a reworking of an organ Mass (an instrumental accompaniment to the service, without words or singers) that he’d written in 1942 at the resort of Galyatető.

Those origins are still discernable in the imposing Introitus for solo organ that begins the work. Kodály also added a postlude for solo organ, Ite, Missa Est, in which the work’s basic key of D minor finally resolves into a blazing D major. These two movements anchor a monumental musical structure, powerfully unified by a network of thematic connections and incorporating discreet references to composers as varied as Palestrina, Bach and Kodály’s Hungarian contemporary Ernő Dohnányi. ‘If we really desire a new life for our country—and who does not?’ Kodály had said in 1940, ‘then we must seek regeneration from our music as well’. You don’t need to analyse the Missa Brevis to hear it as an act of powerful affirmation, a shout de profundis, in which Kodály’s Hungarian accent acquires a universal directness and a towering formal strength.

That’s evident in the way the opening Introit prepares the way, harmonically, for the Kyrie, and the upper voices’ haunting cries of ‘Christe eleison’. The Gloria peals out in celebration, but its central ‘Qui tollis’ comes to rest on a repeated, pleading ‘Miserere’, just as the heart of the Credo is the anguished, increasingly awestruck account of Christ’s suffering in a sombre E flat minor—followed by the dazzling light of ‘Et resurrexit’ and a mighty ‘Amen’. Sanctus and Benedictus, too, each find their own path from quiet prayer to resounding ‘Hosanna’. Revealingly, though, Kodály throws the weightiest emotional burden of the piece onto the Agnus Dei, with its closing imprecation ‘Dona nobis pacem’—which resounds, with increasing power, through the closing Ite, Missa Est. Few twentieth-century sacred works represent a greater act of faith. Kodály dedicated the Missa Brevis to Emma in celebration of their 35th wedding anniversary, which fell in September 1945, and which—on the day that this music was first sung—neither of them can have been certain they would live to see.

Otče náš (Our Father) Leoš Janáček (1854-1928)
When, in his 70s, Leoš Janáček composed his Glagolitic Mass, the reaction appalled him. ‘You know what they wrote about me? “The pious old man”. I got angry then, and said, look here young man, firstly I am not old, and as for being a believer, well, I am certainly not that—certainly not! Only when I am convinced.’ Janáček’s childhood Catholic faith had ceased to convince him long before he wrote this setting of the Lord’s Prayer in the summer of 1901. What did convince him was faith as an expression of the life of a nation, a community; the product of a shared Slavic heritage and spirit.

Otče náš (Our Father) served exactly that purpose. He wrote it not for use in a church but in response to a request from the trustees of a women’s shelter in Brno. The inspiration was a set of religious paintings by the Polish nationalist painter Józef Męcina-Krzesz (1860-1934), which showed Russian peasants in devotional attitudes suggested by the lines of the Lord’s Prayer, and which had been reprinted in an illustrated weekly. The idea was that amateur actors from the Brno theatre club ‘Tyl’ would act out a series of scenes of tableaux-vivants resembling the pictures, while Janáček’s music—scored for the available forces of piano, harmonium, mixed choir and solo tenor—served as an accompaniment. Janáček wrote the piece in little more than a month prior to the fundraising performance at the Brno Theatre on 15 June 1901. But he revised it, rescored it for organ and harp, and authorised a Prague performance in November 1906—to mixed reviews. ‘Perhaps having the pictures in the programme would have helped’ he commented.

The paintings vanished during the Second World War, but even so, this comment hardly seems necessary. This is Janáček responding to the associations and sonorities of the words before him, and speaking directly and frankly to his community. The six sections flow together, linked by instrumental interludes to allow time for the necessary rearrangements on stage. The choir intones the opening lines in a gentle canon, before the tenor’s heroic entry on ‘Thy kingdom come’ (it’s possible to read patriotic symbolism into Janáček’s vaulting lines) and the chorus’s stirring response. The tenor leads off again, on ‘Thy will be done’; Janáček repeats the verse, and a pensive interlude suddenly bursts into a boisterous choral plea ‘Give us this day our daily bread’ before, to dolcissimo chords, the tenor sings ‘And forgive us our trespasses’. The tempo leaps to energico moderato and a bustling ostinato for ‘And lead us not into temptation’, as this non-devotional devotional work by a fiercely spiritual agnostic speeds to a decisive ‘Amen’.

Richard Bratby © 2017

Conductor’s Reflections
I am fascinated by the way in which ancient liturgical texts can become contemporary and speak to us afresh. Additional layers of meaning and expression are created by the backgrounds and circumstances of the composers, the performers and the listener. Indeed, this recording may stimulate different emotions in the future depending on who is listening and when they are listening. As we sing the psalms each day in chapel I try to help singers and listeners to experience how the annoyances, hopes and fears of the psalmist are equally relevant and meaningful some three millennia later. As a liturgical musician, whose role includes articulating the same words day after day, I am always searching for ways to create fresh illumination. The genesis of Janáček’s Lord’s Prayer is particularly striking and original in this regard; his use of visual images, and the influence of contemporary social issues, bring vividness and immediacy to Otče náš. The penultimate phrase (‘And lead us not into temptation’) is inspired by a painting of a man with an axe on the point of murdering a mother and her child. That image has an additional degree of poignancy as I write in a week when many people, including an 8-year-old girl, have been murdered by a terrorist in Manchester. Janáček himself never recovered from the death of his two year-old son, Vladimir. One hears Janáček’s anger with God, just as the opening of Poulenc’s Kyrie also seems to express a supplicant’s anger at the Lord for not yet having had mercy. Absolution is eventually granted in Poulenc’s closing bars. For the final tableau of the Lord’s Prayer (‘But deliver us from evil’), Krzesz painted a catastrophic flood which sweeps away a house and all its possessions. The occupants float on a raft and Christ protects them, though I am not convinced that Janáček sought to portray any sense of rescue in his music. ‘Chléb náš’ (‘Give us this day our daily bread’) portrayed villagers crying in anger to heaven after their harvest had been destroyed in a storm. A hundred and ten years later, as we recorded the work, there was a new resonance for me as our television screens were dominated by pictures of migrants drowning as they tried to reach our shores.

Why Kodály, Poulenc and Janáček? These are three European composers with utterly distinctive individual voices, but linked by their continued use of tonality (at times when tonality was becoming less fashionable!). I wanted to record Kodály’s Missa Brevis for release in his 50th anniversary year, contrasting it with Poulenc’s Mass, written only a few years earlier. Kodály and Janáček form a natural pairing; they both fell under the spell of folk music, shared a passion for music education, and had the desire to create new musical languages emancipated from the grip of the Austro-Germanic tradition. As it happens, both the Janáček and Kodály works were first heard with harmonium rather than organ, though we employ the latter on this recording.

The disc’s title, KYRIE – ‘Lord’, links the opening word of the Mass with the Lord’s Prayer. Another title I considered was ‘Chléb’; I have already mentioned the significance in Otče náš of this Old Church Slavonic word, ‘Bread.’ The broken bread of Communion on our cover image brings to mind not only the central moment of the Eucharist, but also Kodály’s subtitle ‘Mass in time of War’, provoking thoughts of a broken world. The sound of the initial consonant of KYRIE seems to me to evoke a sense of fracture. Poulenc’s Mass in G was also influenced by a sense of loss and brokenness, after an acquaintance of his was killed in a horrific car crash. This fellow composer who died was not a friend, but—even worse—it was someone with whom Poulenc had fallen out.

Kodály’s Missa Brevis belies its title by being symphonic in range and scale. To give but one example: delicate second-inversion chords (i.e. without the conventional bass note) give a heavenly sense of weightlessness in the Hosannas and Christe eleison. By contrast, the preceding, cowering Kyrie eleison is intensely human. Walter Susskind wrote of Janáček that ‘he was the synthesis of an awesome temperament and tender dreamfulness, of stormy energy and gentle sensibility.’ Poulenc was also full of contrasts. His great collaborator, Pierre Bernac, wrote of the need for a great variety of colours in singing Poulenc’s songs—‘light, clear, transparent, suspended or very dark, warm, rich, weighty.’ In addition, Poulenc seems to me to call for an orchestral palette of textures in the Mass—shimmering muted strings, dry Stravinskian astringency, dancing woodwind in the Sanctus, sometimes great clarity, at other times much use of a piano’s sustaining pedal. We have made an attempt to evoke that ever-changing soundscape. Passages such as ‘Domine Deus’ in the Gloria call to mind the words of the great French poet and philosopher Paul Valéry, much admired by Poulenc: ‘He who would write his dream must be completely awake.’ Such dreams are what enable music to open a window into the world beyond. Dona nobis pacem.

Andrew Nethsingha © 2017

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