POULENC Vocal Music
The Danish National Vocal Ensemble face some pretty stiff competition with this disc of unaccompanied Poulenc but they do not just hold their own; they sweep a lot of it aside. Under Stephen Layton’s perceptive and often inspired direction, they capture the essential dichotomy of Poulenc’s writing as encapsulated in the title of the disc, a translation of the famous quote by Claude Rostand.
Layton has shown his exceptional affinity with the music of Poulenc before – notably with Polyphony (Hyperion, 4/08) – and it shines through every nuance here. The lightning changes of mood, the abrupt transformations from the boisterous to the intimate and, of course, the unsettling switching between prayerful and playful are brought across with complete composure, and what might come across as an awkward juxtaposition of unrelated ideas becomes a natural progression of ingenious musical invention never blunting its highly distinctive edge. Poulenc’s music is always fresh and invigorating; Layton merely refreshes it for our ears.
Exquisitely turned phrases and superbly poised melodic lines, be they the pseudo-chanting of the lonely tenor and the magically monk-like male chorus in the last of the Prières de Saint François d’Assise or the vertiginous screech of the soprano, more monkey than monk, in ‘Luire’ (from the Sept chansons), bring a sense of coherence to a programme in which the longest of the 29 tracks only slightly over-runs the three and a half-minute mark.
On absolutely top form, the choir fluidly switches between the highly charged energy of the breathlessly galloping ‘Marie’, with its captivatingly subtle harmonic switches, and the ethereally floating quietude of Ave verum corpus with absolute assurance. If a highlight has to be identified, for me it would be the sumptuously voluptuous account of Un soir de neige. Coupled with a beautifully atmospheric recording and interesting notes (disturbingly printed on a pink background), this is a one-disc Poulenc compendium no Poulencophile should be without.