Here is a fascinating program of Poulenc’s major secular a cappella choral works brilliantly conducted and sung by Laurence Equilbey and the young virtuosi of the Choeur de Chambre Accentus. The opening Sept chansons is an early work, set to poems of two of Poulenc’s favorites, Guillaume Apollinaire and Paul Éluard. The poems and music are light-hearted, at times folkish, but also often carry a darker undercurrent. The rest of the program is devoted to settings of poems by Éluard written and composed (in secret) during the German occupation of France in World War II. Figure humaine, a set of eight choral songs on themes of despair and hope is the major work on the disc, remarkable for the depth of feeling Poulenc brought to the poetry. The final song, LIBERTÉ, ends with a defiant, hair-raising soprano shriek. Poulenc, explaining why he didn’t add instrumental or orchestral accompaniment, described his setting of the poems as an “act of faith to be expressed solely by the human voice.” Un soir de neige, another product of wartime France, reflects the desolation poet and composer felt–the grim words set to music of cold, hard ice.
Poulenc often pits groups of singers against each other, exploits contrasts, and oscillates between simple directness and complex harmonies, but these singers meet his every challenge. Their tone is firm, their pitch is accurate, and their diction is superb. Above all, they sing with conviction–you get the feeling that they love this music and want you to do the same. In Marie, from Sept Chansons, they capture Poulenc’s quicksilver, fast-flowing lines with perfect articulation while also exploiting the nostalgic vein running through the song.
So there’s lots of good news here, including a recording that’s tingling in its realism and contained in a neat cardboard package instead of the hated jewel case. But there’s also a bit of bad news, too. This disc contains 38 minutes of music, an inexcusable marketing blunder when you think of how many other Poulenc choral works could have been recorded to make a respectably full program. The New London Chamber Choir and James Wood (Hyperion) offer the same three works, joined by another half-hour’s worth of Poulenc’s secular choral pieces, in good performances and sound, though neither performances nor engineering is in quite the same league as Equilbey and her choristers. [9/22/2001]