I was completely befuddled by the first words on the booklet cover: 'Half Monk' and 'Half Rascal'. Initially I thought of them as a couple of Scandinavian participants in the recording, and it was only when reading Claus Johansen (probably also Scandinavian) on the music itself that I came across Poulenc's remark that 'A critic has said that there are both a monk and a street urchin in me. That is an accurate description of my personality.' Then I understood, and partially agreed, though Poulenc was always far too boulevardwise ever to have been a 'rascal' or 'urchin'. And in 1936, during or after which nearly all this music was written, Poulenc reverted to the Catholicism of his earlier days.
Hence the heartfelt tributes to St Francis and St Antony of Padua, both for unaccompanied male voices. But there is quite enough secular music to preserve the half and half attribution. 'Tous les droits', for instance, even if not always spelt correctly, dates from that same crucial year.
Listen -- Poulenc: Tous les droits (Sept chansons)
(track 4, 0:00-0:46) © 2012 OUR Recordings :
It is a setting of words by Paul Eluard, whose poetry dominates the Sept Chansons (published as Op 81). Eluard was a founder of the surrealist movement and, much affected by the Spanish Civil War, joined the underground communists in wartime France to support the resistance.
Any setting of the Ave verum has to face very strong competition. There is above all Mozart's incomparable version written towards the end of his life. Whenever faced with a short space in a choral programme, I would slip it in as often as possible. And then there is Elgar's Op 2, given a misleadingly early opus number, but as serenely beautiful as anything he wrote. Which of the three composers had the weakest faith at the time it would be difficult to say for certain, but it is likely to have been Mozart. Like Elgar, Poulenc uses only female voices, and in his case they are unaccompanied.
Listen -- Poulenc: Ave verum corpus
(track 12, 0:00-0:46) © 2012 OUR Recordings :
The fourth of the Chansons françaises is about as 'rascally' as Poulenc here allows himself to become. It is a joyous and infective piece, with strong rhythmic drive and a delicious sense of humour. There can be no doubt that the Danish National Vocal Ensemble is Scandinavian, nor that their commitment to this music under Stephen Layton is total. There is much here to savour. I am particularly touched by the purple colour of the booklet, as a recently departed friend who happened to be devoted to this particular composer was always addressed by me as the 'Purple Poulenc'.
Copyright © 9 March 2012 Robert Anderson,
Great review on Half Monk-Half Rascal in The Arts Desk
Half Monk/Half Rascal: Unaccompanied choral music by Francis Poulenc Danish National Vocal Ensemble/Stephen Layton (OUR Recordings)
"A critic said that there is both a monk and a street urchin in me. That is an accurate description of my personality." Poulenc was the first to admit the contradictions inherent in his music and character. A devout Catholic, he was openly gay, and his music can miraculously reconcile the deeply personal with the cheekily flippant. Close your ears to Poulenc and you're missing out on some of the 20th century's most alluring music. Listening repeatedly to this sharply performed a cappella choral collection is fascinating. It's easy to dismiss Poulenc as a Tatiesque clown, but the rawer sonorities serve to highlight just how sophisticated a composer he was. It's all in the harmonies and chord progressions – often breaking every rule but invariably sounding wonderful. This is music which can make life feel worth living.
Stephen Layton's Danish choir give exemplary performances. At times there's a welcome edge to the sound, a toughness, coupled with superb control – the major/minor shifts in La blanche neige are superbly done, as is the abrupt fade out at the song's close. There's a rare chance to hear two religious works for male voices, but the real masterpiece is Un soir de neige, a wartime setting of poetry by Paul Éluard. The opening of Bois meutri is chilling. And while you're still marvelling at Poulenc's eloquence in serious mode, move on to the exuberant collection of Chansons Françaises, and the tiny Chanson à boire composed for a Harvard Glee Club. It has a killer ending. Fabulous, in other words.
Great review on Half Monk-Half Rascal in UK Magazine Choir and Organ.
4 out of 5 star review:
The old rouge would have kissed them all, the men twice over. Poulenc may have created am impression of easygoing hedonism, and he certainly took an unusual angel on sacred music (monks playing football,indeed!) but his music demands precision and care even at its most rapturous, and there is plenty
of rapture as well as wit in this intelligent selected programme. Layton gets a lovely, excact sound out of DNVE,heightened by a superb recording. Predictably, the religious songs are sensual, and the secular ones seem to reach for trancendence. That's Poulenc, who was all genius.
Brian Morton: Choir and Organ May/June 2012
Great 5 star review on Half Monk-Half Rascal in UK Magazine Classical Music
5 star review (-full house!)
"Half Monk-Half Rascal" they called him. Poulenc's deep religious conviction shining through just as clearly in some works as his irreverent sense of humour did in others. Layton deftly contrasts both worlds on this disc and response of his Danish singers in works including the Sept chansons and Chansons francaises is both idiomatic and precisely-judged. A lovely record. Guy Weatherall, June 2012
Overwhelmimg 5 star review on Half Monk-Half Rascal in BBC Music Magazine
5 out of 5 stars!
No one is pretending Poulenc's melodies and instrumental music are without their performing problems. But, rather curiously, he left many of his most fearsome challenges for his choral music: in phrasing, balance, articulation, register and, above all, tuning. For every piece that sits comfortable in a modal armchair, there's another that stuns with chromatic leaps and bounds – and often the two styles interlock.
So one approaches every new recording of this repertoire with slight trepidation. Twenty seconds is usually enough. As it was here. After which all I could say was "Hoorah!" And I went on saying it, interspersed every now and again with "Wow!" (initially the soprano top B on track 4). I see I'm now less than a half way through the review, and I suppose if I just went on writing "Hoorah!" and "Wow!" my editor might have to reduce my fee, which of course could be a serious matter. But really my only cavil is over a few errors in the printed French and Latin texts.Of the performances, I have to say this is some of the most beautiful and moving choral singing I have ever heard. I suppose you could query the performance of the secular items in a resonant church. But it dosen't worry me, given the spirit and energy of the singing. Words too are crystal clear, with excellent French. Am I allowed to say "Hoorah!" And "Wow!" once more? Next stop,- please, "Figure humaine." Roger Nichols BBC Music Magazine June 2012