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CD Review

Poulenc / Szymanowski

Stabat Maters

1 Marietta Simpson, mezzo-soprano
1 Victor Ledbetter, baritone
1,2 Christine Goerke, soprano
Atlanta Symphony Orchestra & Chorus/Robert Shaw
Telarc CD-80362 58:24
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Summary for the Busy Executive: Paradisi gloria.

As far as I know, a unique pairing, but I don't complain, since it gathers two of my favorite 20th-century works, and not just choral works. Nevertheless, one marks them as significantly different types – the Poulenc written in hot blood, the Szymanowski a bit cooler.

Although he kept a life-long admiration for Chopin, Szymanowski as a composer started out mainly as an heir to Richard Strauss. He moved to an Impressionist exoticism – not a favorite genre of mine – and he did both very well. One doesn't doubt his compositional chops, regardless of what one may think of an individual piece. However, toward the end of the first world war, he felt himself at a creative impasse. Knock-off Strauss or hothouse Orientalism, even well done, becomes beside the point very quickly, especially when you can get more convincing goods from, say, Debussy or Strauss himself. He found his way out – and the way to his genuine creative self – through Polish folk music and traditions. He began not only to compose again, but to compose almost all the masterpieces that keep his name alive for us. He began to write music that not only expressed himself but really mattered, and he finally became able to bring Chopin into his own work. His Stabat Mater ranks as one of the early masterpieces of his final, nationalist period. The work springs less from a religious inspiration than a nationalistically poetic one. After all, Poland, after more than a hundred years of partition among Germany, Austria, and Russia, had only recently become reconstituted as a state, its national identity – in lieu of a Polish government – kept alive through its language, art, music, folk traditions, and especially Polish Catholicism. Significantly, Szymanowski began the work as a "peasant mass," which betrays a folklorist and even an exotic, rather than purely religious, impulse.

I first encountered the work through a score. I walked in on a grad-student friend of mine rehearsing his part for the local town-and-gown chorus. I puzzled at the opening, full of sharps and flats in what looked like the "wrong" places, but showing an obvious logic, and – although I can usually hear the harmony I "read" – I had little idea how it would sound. At any rate, I showed up for the performance and was completely blown away. It evoked for me the martyrs and hermits of the early church, the ones who sat on columns or lived among the desert rocks and caverns. I immediately bought the only available recording – a Polish Muza LP which still sits on my shelves, about thirty years later.

I also very clearly remember my second live hearing, sometime in the early 90s. Libor Pešek led the Cleveland Orchestra and Chorus in Severance Hall. This time, even though I knew what would come, it blew me away again. The opening moved me to tears. Very few pieces work on me this way. At any rate, I've gone rather nuts over collecting CDs of it and own Stryja and Polish forces on Marco Polo (probably also on Naxos, according to, Rattle on EMI (apparently no longer available in the U.S.), Wislocki on Koch, and now this recording. I'll comment on the performance a bit later.

I had the great good fortune of singing Poulenc's Gloria the year after it came out. My public government-run high-school choir did it, and through several months rehearsal I got to know it pretty well. This introduced me to Poulenc's music, which immediately become one of the chief joys of my life. Why not? As Ned Rorem once wrote, "The very nature of Poulenc's art is to be liked and understood." I bought all the LPs I could afford with paper-route and summer-job money and became strongly attracted to the EMI recordings of George Prêtre, who at that time performed Poulenc as if that composer were the greatest of the century. In addition to a blazing recording of the Gloria and Organ Concerto, Prêtre also released what remains for me the best recording of Poulenc's Stabat Mater, with French Wagnerian soprano Régine Crespin as soloist. As far as I know, it never made it to CD (the later recording with Barbara Hendrix comes nowhere close to that first time out). The work itself seems to me Poulenc's finest, the summit of perhaps the greatest religious music of the century, certainly some of the best since Haydn.

If Szymanowski evokes the intense mystical asceticism of the early Hellenic Church, Poulenc brings to mind the example of St. Francis, God's troubadour. Poulenc began as a member of Les Six, with mainly short Dada pieces somewhat recalling Satie. However, he did hanker to widen his range, a fairly difficult task since, unlike Szymanowski, he had very little formal training. Poulenc composed essentially by improvising at the piano. Improvisation is fine for short pieces, but it tends to lead to fairly loose longer ones, like a rubber band all untwisted. Rather than an argument that moves the listener along, one tends to get "one thing after another." The improviser has a couple of choices: either to pull up his socks and learn how Brahms and Beethoven did it or to come up with very interesting sections. To some extent, Poulenc did both. Following Ravel's advice, he modeled some of his major works on the structure of previous masterpieces. Mozart became a favorite source, although Poulenc's structural borrows were never more than the minimum scaffolding. Where Mozart would relate his sections thematically, Poulenc simply contrasted his sections. It also happened that Poulenc turned out one of the greatest melodists of all time, and it seems churlish to complain when he keeps hitting you with "A" material. In the 1930s, after the death of a friend, the cosmopolitan Poulenc rediscovered his Catholic faith. He didn't intellectually wrestle with himself. His faith co-existed with his hedonism (the composer Ned Rorem remarked that Poulenc's appetites – all of them – were enormous), and the music reflects this dualism. For me, it's the music's glory. Poulenc had another problem to overcome: how to write in a serious vein without sacrificing his style. He came up with an amalgam of 16th-century choral style and Stravinsky, particularly the Stravinsky of Oedipus Rex, a work of enormous influence on several French composers. Throughout the Stabat Mater one comes across Poulenc's appropriations from the earlier work. Even at the very beginning, the bass accompaniment derives from Oedipus's opening chorus changed from triple to duple time.

Poulenc publicly attributed the inspiration of his Stabat Mater to a commission from the Strasbourg Festival and the death of the painter Christian Bérard. However, Wilfrid Mellers's study of the composer (Oxford University Press) reveals the actual inspiration to have been the death of Poulenc's lover Lucien Roubert, a highly unstable young man who also managed through his tantrums to drive the composer himself close to a nervous breakdown. The work became for Poulenc an exorcism of the maleficent spirit of Lucien as well as a preparation for Poulenc's grand opera Dialogues des Carmélites. Why a Stabat mater? The task of composing a unified "Dies irae" made Poulenc shy from a full requiem. The looser stanzas of the Stabat mater text allowed him to follow Renaissance and Baroque liturgical practice of cutting up the text into smaller, discrete units. Also, the apocalyptic vistas of the requiem mass were foreign to Poulenc's artistic temperament. The anguish of Mary at the foot of the cross gave Poulenc an image of human contact with both death and the divine. The music ranges from the solemn opening ("Seldom has a minor triad sounded so irremediably minor" – Mellers) to ecstatic, child-like dances, to long, unaccompanied stretches for chorus that bring to mind the strength of a Mantegna painting. Its grief runs deep. Its joy is almost manic. Its warmth hugs you like a heavy comforter. Poulenc said of himself that his religion was as "simple as a peasant's." He probably didn't think about it or go through the Daedalan twists of most educated moderns. It was part of him to an extent not only beyond most of us, but inconceivable to most of us. The music heals because it doesn't ignore its painfinspiration and accepts heaven straightforwardly and sincerely as a fact, like a glass of wine.

Shaw's Telarc performances swing between the dull and the wonderful. His Elijah hasn't a clue. His Berlioz Requiem turns that wild and wooly work into a Victorian Official Portrait, even though his live performance raised one's hair. On the other hand, he did a beautiful Poulenc choral disc, loving readings of the Fauré and Duruflé Requiems, and some splendid a cappella work with the Robert Shaw Chamber Singers, the last recalling the heady days of the Robert Shaw Chorale. Szymanowski and Poulenc bring out all his musical virtues: crisp rhythm, clear textures, and sumptuous choral sound without sacrificing intelligibility. To this, one notes a trait not often found in Shaw's later performances: intensity, evident even in the opening unison of the men's voices singing the Gregorian chant. The intensity never becomes hokey and the perfect intonation adds to the rapt beauty of the tune. From the meanderings of the chant arise the sinuous twists of Szymanowski's solo winds. The soprano soloist enters, then the choir, and suddenly we discover ourselves inside a heart-piercing rapture and a musical language from an ancient, forgotten people. Even the relatively quick passages of the work process in a stately way rather than fly, and Shaw pulls off the trick of keeping everything moving toward the blazing chords of the penultimate section and the quiet benediction of the conclusion. The ravishing harmony of the final invocation of Christ and "the glory of Paradise" brings to mind the very similar chorales of Bernstein's Mass. Bernstein, of course, stole from everywhere to create highly original music, and it wouldn't surprise me to learn that he indeed knew the Szymanowski.

Shaw's advocacy of Poulenc has long been regarded as something special, not least by the composer himself. Ned Rorem reports in his recollections of the composer:

And, like artists, he was also a child; his self-absorption was stupefying. I recall once in Cannes his monologue to a baffled bartender about a series of triumphant modulations he had penned that afternoon. I remember also a river of tears as he listened to a record of his own Stabat Mater. "Robert Shaw," he wept, "is the greatest performer of our time: his tempi correspond to the very motion of my blood."

I don't think of the latter as self-absorption. It's simply that composers find a performer wholly in tune with their music so rarely, that they can be pardoned for occasionally going over the top. Shaw's 1963 Severance Hall memorial for Poulenc remains a high point of my concertgoing life. Poulenc's Stabat Mater is highly episodic – in eleven or twelve movements, depending on how you count, as opposed to Szymanowski's six movements. Many of the sections shift by semitones, which adds to the feeling of "starting over." Szymanowski habitually reaches across a longer span. In addition, Poulenc contrasts moods sharply, even within sections. Shaw plays (and wins) a double game: finding the proper tone for each section – from grief to anger to radiance to serenity to mixtures drawn from all of these moods; finding and presenting the coherence of the work. The work does indeed cohere, but extraordinarily subtly, more by musical symbols (particularly the rising minor third) than by classical procedures. Despite one glaring instrumental flub (presto semitonal triplets on a trombone!) in the "Quis est homo" movement, this performance ranks as one of Shaw's very best. It may lack the weight of Prêtre's first recorded account, but on the other hand it never bogs down, and the choral work – as one would expect – blows everybody else out of the water. As in the Szymanowski, Shaw comes up with an account that means every note, in this case as deeply as Poulenc must have felt every note. Poulenc doesn't indulge in a nostalgic antiquarianism. The old modes jostle freely against Debussyian and even blues harmonies. He takes these elements because they trace the currents of his psyche. As I say, Szymanowski keeps more of a distance.

People might want to know how Shaw compares with other recordings I've heard. I've not heard a bad recording of the Szymanowski. Wislocki's reading strikes me as "soupier," although it has the advantage of native Polish speakers. The soprano soloist, Stefania Woytowicz, swoops a bit excessively, I find, from one note to the next, and the orchestra seems to catch this style from her. Shaw's forces sing and play at a far higher level. Stryja on Marco Polo does much better. If the performance has been transferred to Naxos, this is a fine, inexpensive alternative. I prefer Shaw's clarity, brisker pace, and Telarc's sound. Shaw's soloists are better. Christine Goerke's opening solo in the Szymanowski will rapture you out. Marietta Simpson's full, rich contralto never degenerates into wobble. Victor Ledbetter's baritone can both ring out like a hero when called upon while tinged with the darker colors of a true bass. Shaw's choir is a lot better. Stryja's level of intensity rises just as high, however. Rattle surprised me with a curiously uninvolved, very well-played reading. Nothing's wrong with it, but nothing goes particularly well, either. Certainly, the radiance of the work burns at a lower level than in any of the other recordings.

As for the Poulenc, EMI should release the first Prêtre. Forget the second. Forget as well Ozawa's totally clueless reading on DGG of both the Stabat Mater and the Gloria. Ozawa has done well by Poulenc, just not here. Pešek (my copy: a Japanese Supraphon release) is quite fine, but not as good as Shaw, and unless you want the Honegger Christmas cantata coupled with it, there's no reason to instigate a special search, with special prices to match. On Harmonia Mundi, Baudo leads French forces in a highly idiomatic performance similar to Prêtre's first, but of course without Crespin and without Shaw's animated rhythms and attention to detail. Hickox on Virgin Classics is let down by his choir; the Westminster Singers put out a strong line, but with mushy diction. His soloist, though good, really doesn't match Goerke, with the true, clear, almost folk-like soprano voice Shaw favored.

Shaw had a long career of mostly distinguished, often inspired music-making. This is one of the high points of that career.

Copyright © 2000, Steve Schwartz