The anniversaries of composers’ births naturally tend to attract more attention than those of their deaths, so it’s little surprise that the fiftieth anniversary of Francis Poulenc’s death has been rather eclipsed by the multi-centenary celebrations of the births of Britten, Wagner and Verdi - but I couldn’t let 2013 go by without sparing a few minutes to reflect on his unique contribution to sacred music in particular.
The grieving Poulenc’s visit to the Marian shrine of the ‘Black Madonna’ of Rocamadour in south-western France kick-started not only a life-long compositional interest in sacred music (he completed the Litanies in little more than a week) but also a resurgence of his Catholic faith. Anticipating the Gregorian chant-like lines of the better-known Quatre motets pour un temps de pénitence, it’s a stark, dissonant, yet compelling work which is brought off with an ideal mixture of severity and religious ecstasy by the ladies of the Parisian choir here.
The exuberant Gloria of 1960 opens the disc, in a feisty performance which never shies away from the work’s brassy extrovert elements or over-eggs the more introspective moments (listen out for the rapt, weightless singing from the soprano soloist in the Agnus Dei). But for me the real discovery on this disc was the Stabat Mater, another work inspired by the death of a close friend: written in 1950, it was conceived as a memorial to the theatrical designer Christian Bérard (his death was also commemorated in Jean Cocteau’s Orphée, partially as a tribute to his ground-breaking designs for the film La Belle et la Bête four years earlier) and like the Litanies à la Vierge noire it came into being following a visit to Rocamadour. It’s an intriguing, idiosyncratic work which melds stern neo-Baroque counterpoint (shades of Pergolesi in the spare opening) and plainchant elements with the bittersweet language of the salon, whilst never lapsing into mawkishness or insincerity.
The performances by the Orchestre et Choeur de l’Orchestre de Paris under Paavo Järvi are superb: the upper voices are outstanding for their warmth and purity, and some occasional rawness in the tenors is the only small blot on a choral sound which manages to be sensuous but never sleazy, and incisive without ever sounding mannered. The orchestra clearly have this music in their bones, with punchy, tangy brass-playing in the Gloria and Stabat Mater, plenty of textural clarity and a lovely feeling for the Baroque pastiche passages in the latter work in particular. The characterful French coloratura soprano Patricia Petibon is an inspired choice of soloist: her eclectic stage career has encompassed the high French Baroque heroines of Rameau and Lully as well as twentieth-century roles, and her early-music experience pays dividends in the austere passages of the Stabat Mater, whilst the louche sensuality of Berg’s Lulu (one of her most recently acclaimed roles) occasionally comes out to play in the Gloria.
So if you’d like a Gallic palate-cleanser amid the glut of Britten, Verdi and Wagner, do spare an hour to celebrate the glittering urbanity and ‘rustic faith’ of a composer who died just fifty years ago.