POULENC: Stabat Mater; Seven Tenebrae Responses – Carolyn Sampson, sop./ Cappella Amsterdam/ Estonian Philharmonic Ch. Choir/ Estonian National Ch. Orch./ Daniel Ruess – Harmonia mundi

POULENC: Stabat Mater; Seven Tenebrae Responses – Carolyn Sampson, sop./ Cappella Amsterdam/ Estonian Philharmonic Ch. Choir/ Estonian National Ch. Orch./ Daniel Ruess – Harmonia mundi HMC 902149, 62:12 ****:

The Lenten releases keep coming in fast and furious. And this one is very welcome. Everyone knows the story of Poulenc’s later-in-life reconversion to his ancestral Catholic faith, happening about 1936 around the time of his pilgrimage to Rocamadour, where he acquired a special devotion to Our Lady of the same name. Christian Berard, a painter and noted set designer, reposed in Paris in 1949, and Poulenc, as a channel and expression of his grief, set about the creating of this Stabat Mater.  The work, in five voices, is chorus-heavy, and often quite dramatic in instances, not out of keeping with the general spirit of the times, though today some might find it a little brash for liturgical use. Nonetheless it is thoroughly Poulenc in style, optimistic in tone, and robustly French Catholic in outlook.

In 1959 Leonard Bernstein commissioned a work from the composer, which ended up as the Seven Tenebrae Responses, a service done on the evening before or early morning of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday, which are the last three days of Holy Week. It is marked by a gradual extinguishing of candles, a dramatic liturgical device for the final days of the most important week of the Christian year. The piece was performed in 1963, posthumously, and was originally intended for treble soloist, and boy’s and men’s voices, something the composer was adamant about, lending a certain airy and light quality to these already dark texts. In this performance those instructions are ignored, under the guise that a mixed choir version helps to get the piece more performances. Why this would matter on a recording I do not know, as it would seem an ideal place to record the pristine intents. Even so, I cannot complain about anything that Carolyn Sampson sings, in stunning form here in both pieces, and always worth hearing in virtually anything she does.

All forces perform with aplomb and a fine sense to the style required, and the coupling can’t be beat. If Poulenc’s liturgical masterpieces interest you at all, this is one you will want, beautifully recorded in the Estonia Concert Hall in Tallinn.

—Steven Ritter

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