Clearing the paper plates of soggy pasta and strudel from the 2013 Verdi and Wagner bicentenary offerings, we come across this fine bottle of French sacrificial wine, uncorked to mark 50 years since the death of Francis Poulenc. The oft-quoted description of the composer as “half monk, half rascal” goes some way to describe the dichotomy of his sacred music, as well as his character in general.
All three works feature austere counterpoint grounded in medieval chant yet enveloped in lush orchestral sound with pungent, playful details – the precise dissonances of the Stabat Mater Vidit suum, for instance; the joie de vivre of the Gloria’s Laudamus Te; the Provençal country sir of the Domine Fili.
Ever-eccentric French soprano Patricia Petibon proves a sensitive soloist to match Poulenc’s every mood. Her light voice is mysterious on the swooping, ethereal Domine Deus, Agnus Dei, pure-toned but never lacking in warmth; almost too sensual to be sacred.
The most austere work is the earliest, the Litanies à la Vierge Noire, dating from 1936 with the openly gay Poulenc’s profound return to Catholicism after the traumatic death of a friend in a car accident. Seeking solace in the sanctuary of Rocamadour with it’s black statue of The Virgin, Poulenc explored Renaissance motet harmonies in this stark meditation for female choir, strings and timpani. The women of the Choeur de l’Orchestre de Paris deliver these fluid, exposed lines with grace and intensity. In the Stabat Mater, however, the larger mixed choir is less tidy, sometimes straining just under the highest notes. Paavo Järvi’s orchestral sound is by turns delicate and powerful, always clean even while executing the most imaginative and exacting of Poulenc’s instrumental effects.