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Terrific Performances of Contrasting Poulenc Masterpieces,
This review is from: Stabat Mater, Les Biches (Audio CD)
These are top-notch new performances, in excellent sound, of two of Poulenc's greatest works, which moreover turn out to be an effective complementary pairing.
The Stabat Mater (1950) was the first of a trio of superb large-scale Latin religious works that the composer wrote toward the end of his life, the other two being the popular Gloria and the all-but unknown Sept Répons des Ténèbres. Each piece runs 25-30' and requires a large chorus and orchestra and a soprano soloist. In its atmosphere of meditative devotion and luminous melancholy (punctuated by outbursts of turbulence) the Stabat Mater looks forward to Poulenc's operatic masterpiece, Dialogues des Carmélites, which he composed a few years later. French conductor Stéphane Denève and his German forces (SWR Vocal Ensemble Stuttgart and NDR Chorus, Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra of the SWR) give an excellent account of this intensely moving work, with the passages of soft choral singing particularly memorable; Marlis Petersen is an ideally limpid soloist.
Then we travel back more than a quarter of a century to the young Poulenc's first big success, the ballet Les Biches (1923, re-orchestrated 1939-40), full of great tunes, wit, naughtiness and an exuberance occasionally bordering on raucousness. The debt to Stravinsky's Pulchinella is evident in the overall tone of hard-edged gaiety (relieved by gentler lyrical stretches), in the use of "period" models for some of the music, and in the incorporation of vocal numbers. Nonetheless, it's all "200% Poulenc" (as the composer once said of another work of his), and one of the few non-Stravinsky Ballets Russes commissions to have achieved an independent concert life. Here, conductor and orchestra really do the piece proud. Denève is particularly successful at convincing us that the three movements with chorus are an integral part of the score rather than interludes easily discarded - as indeed Poulenc did (along with the Overture) when he made the better-known Suite. Georges Prêtre's classic 1968 version of the complete score has pretty much held the field until recently, but with a highly-praised 2011 version by Thierry Fischer and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales (Signum, with Stravinsky's Rite of Spring) and now this tremendously exhilarating performance, the uncut score appears to be making a welcome return.
This issue has the edge over the Prêtre and Fischer CDs in that it includes full texts and translations for Les Biches - albeit with the verse smushed into "prose" to save space; the Stabat Mater is printed correctly. A wonderful disc, highly recommended.