JANÁČEK Otčenáš KODÁLY Missa brevis POULENC Mass
The Mass settings of Kodály and Poulenc were composed within six years of each other (1937-42), and with mixed choirs in mind. They have nevertheless entered the repertoire of the English college and cathedral tradition, giving rise to several recordings, though not hitherto coupled together. In fact Kodály casts the tenor melody of his Agnus Dei in a modally drawn arch of marked Poulencian architecture, and each work springs from an inner well of necessity. The conclusion of Poulenc’s own Agnus brings the first appearance in his output of a leitmotif (‘the symbol of the Christian soul’, he called it, ‘confidently looking forward to life in Heaven’, quoted from Richard Bratby’s fine booklet essay) that found its apotheosis in the music for Sister Blanche in Dialogues of the Carmelites.
To both movements the treble voices of St John’s bring an ineffably poised gravity that is not within the expressive ambit of the Robert Shaw Chorale (praised to the skies by Poulenc as ideal interpreters) or Kodály’s own school of choral training. When Poulenc first heard Shaw’s RCA recording of his Mass in 1949, he apparently rushed from the bathroom, covered in shaving foam, and exclaimed, ‘At last, the world will know I am a serious composer!’ Yet a signal virtue of this new recording is the moulded caress of every luscious harmony in what are predominantly homophonic works. The final cadence of Poulenc’s ‘Osanna’ is like a rum baba glistening in a patissier’s window; you could almost bite into it. The glittering Cymbelstern stop on the last chord of Kodály’s Gloria and the sensuous rise and fall of the Benedictus count as further instances of a recording made to be enjoyed.
A rumble on D emanates from the organ of St John’s: serendipitously in the case of the D minor/major Kodály, less so for Janáček’s setting of the ‘Our Father’, which begins on E. Rather more than his colleagues at Gonville & Caius (ASV) and King’s (EMI, 2/89), Andrew Nethsingha coaxes from his charges a bold, ripe, forwardly placed sound that is as consonant with the Czech text as it may be foreign to the singers’ instincts and education. The overlapping cries of ‘Give us this day’ are as thrilling as they are brief: quintessential Janáček from an unlikely source.