Poulenc Figure Humaine
The competition is strong when it comes to Poulenc’s choral pieces, both sacred and secular, and while Tenebrae certainly enters the fray with an impressive track record, the inevitable questions will be, is it worth adding this disc to a collection already rich in fine Poulenc performances, and will this make a good introduction to those who have yet to explore on disc the super-abundance of musical glories which Poulenc brings to the genre? The answer to the first is, regrettably, no and to the second, a rather less than resounding yes.
Let me not for a moment be accused of suggesting that Tenebrae is anything less than hugely admirable here. Their singing has a precision of pitch, a rhythmic vigour and a musical focus few choirs can equal; you need only listen to the wonderful pattering effect they produce for “Le rôle des femmes” from Figure humaine to appreciate just what a good choir this is. Nigel Short, similarly, has clearly studied these scores to the extent that he realises every tiny nuance of Poulenc’s writing and produces that kind of performance that offers an almost transparent level of textural precision. Nor is the choir’s French anything other than suitably idiomatic.
My reservations lay entirely on their suppressed level of emotional involvement and their corresponding failure to balance moments of introverted reflection and super-charged climaxes with the brilliance we experience with, for example, The Sixteen (12/93R), the Choir of New College, Oxford (10/06), or the Choir of Trinity College, Cambridge (for the Mass, 10/88), and the New London Chamber Choir (for Figure humaine, 12/95). And that’s not even taking into consideration the French choirs – notably Accentus under Laurence Equilbey – who rightly bring to this repertoire a certain Gallic fervour which English choirs can never convincingly emulate. This new release is secure, polished, technically impressive and nicely recorded but the roller-coaster ride of sugar-coated pathos and spiritual intensity I enjoy so much in Poulenc just isn’t to be found here.