From the very outset of the Gloria it’s clear that this is a performance of real distinction. The gloriously pompous opening orchestral fanfare has a swagger and a self-satisfied strut which is one of those rare moments on disc where you would wish it were tracked separately so that you could just play it over and over again. But to do that would miss the scintillating choral entry, the basses starting the ball rolling with the kind of pent-up energy which you just know is going to explode in the most spectacular way. Other recordings – I think particularly of the Cambridge Singers (Collegium, 10/88R) – have a pleasant, smiley quality here; Stephen Layton’s crew has an almost piratical swagger, buoyantly breasting Poulenc’s turbulent waves of barely restrained exuberance.
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 – take the riveting declamation “Qui sedes ad dexteram Patris”, hardly subtle or even particularly refined (the men shout and the brass blares) but unbelievably spine-tingling – but also an ability, brilliantly directed by Layton, to capture Poulenc’s “half hooligan, half monk” musical persona (in Claude Rostand’s oft-quoted aphorism). Thus, 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. I’d happily end my days on a desert island with this track alone.
Not everything is quite so enticing: Gritton wallows a little too much for my taste in the “Domine Deus”, mischievously abetted by Layton’s almost kitsch romanticism. But 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.