FRANCIS POULENC: Secular Choral Music = Chansons francais; Chanson a boire; Sept chansons; Petites voix; Un soir de neige; Figure humaine – Norddeutscher Figuralchor/Jorge Straube – MD&G Gold multichannel (2+2+2) SACD 947 1595-6 [Distr. by Koch] ****:
In 1950 Francis Poulenc (1899-1963) commented about the difference between German and French music to the author Roland Gelatt, “Our (French) composers, too, write profound music, but when they do, it is leavened with that lightness of spirit without which life would be unendurable.” Although Poulenc was more widely known for his sacred vocal music, this CD of Poulenc’s secular choral music shows him composing about subjects that range from freedom to drinking songs in a manner that is passionate.
Chansons francais, the longest work on this selection at over 19 minutes, is a set of eight songs whose subject varies from boys and girls dancing with clogs to a heartbreakingly gorgeous story of a woman who is in love with a man about to be hanged. Seven songs, from poems by Paul Eluard and Guillaume Apollinaire with music inspired by Monteverdi, are more mystical and introverted, but no less melodious. The Night of Snow, written in 1944, describes scenes of winter that may refer to the carnage and desolation of World War II. “Wounded woods wasted woods” and “Night of chill and desolation” give the listener an idea of how deeply the composer felt about the carnage of war.
Poulenc wrote Figure humaine in 1943, during the Germain occupation of France. Based on a poem by his friend Paul Eluard, the composer meant it as an expression of liberty and humanity to be performed after the war. However, its first performance was in England, before the war ended, in January of 1945. It was so well received that the English Royal Air Force dropped copies of the poem as they liberated France. It expresses the horrors of war and the joy of freedom’s triumph. It’s one of Poulenc’s choral masterpieces – beautiful, joyous, and moving. The last section – Liberty – is a great musical statement on how freedom ‘writes its name’ on our lives.
The Norddeutscher Figuralchor sings expressively with superb intonation. MD&G’s SACD sound is beautifully reverberant with only a slight loss of clarity. Poulenc was one of the 20th century’s greatest choral composers and this CD is an excellent opportunity to find out why.
— Robert Moon