How do you take your Poulenc? I only ask because, conveniently, The Sixteen have recorded a lot of the repertoire on their latest disc before, and their thinking has changed dramatically in the 30-year gap. The contrast between the 1990 Figure Humaine (Virgin Classics, now Erato 5624312) and the newly released Francis Poulenc: Choral Music (CORO) is striking – neither an improvement nor the reverse, simply two very different approaches to the composer’s sacred music.
Poulenc’s journey to faith was a swift and dramatic one. The turning point is usually placed in 1936, when two separate events together propelled the composer into a new state of mind. The sudden and violent death of his friend, composer Pierre-Octave Ferroud, in a car accident prompted a visit to the small chapel at Rocamadour, where a mystical experience restored the Catholicism of his childhood. He immediately began work on a sacred piece – the Litanies à la Vierge Noir – taking his first steps in a genre that would become a constant throughout his life.
The sound-world of Figure Humaine is one of gauzy, glossy beauty – a Mannerist vision of a heaven that’s all soft-focus loveliness and elegance. These are performances that cushion chromatic edges, smoothing them down into tensions whose eventual release becomes inevitable.
The new recording, by contrast, is a much leaner, more sinewy affair. Gone is the softening breadth of sound, the artful distance from the microphones. This is a portrait of faith painted close enough to see the frowns of doubt, the sweat and the blood as well as the gilded halo.
Tempos are brisker, more matter of fact, and there’s a deliberately brittle quality to the upper voices that refuses to fill out into absolute certainty. In many ways it’s rather more French, catching the edginess of continental choirs without compromising on British choral precision of tuning and balance.
Some repertoire, inevitably, responds better to one treatment than another. There’s a hazy gorgeousness to some of the gentler works on the earlier recording – Vinea Mea Electa from the Quatre Motets pour un Temps de Pénitence, Quem Vidistis Pastores from the Christmas motets, the opening movement of Un Soir de Neige – but it’s matched by the new muscularity, the ferocity and unblinking confrontation of the later take on Timor et Tremor, the declamatory assertiveness of Hodie Christus Natus Est and the climactic moment of La Bonne Neige.
It’s testimony to the chameleon-like beauty of the Mass in G that the piece works both ways, but forced to choose, I’d opt for the fragility and urgency of the 2017 recording, which voices not only the fears and uncertainties of 1937 Europe, but those of today with disquieting clarity.