Poulenc as a religious composer? To those who know the colourful orchestral works, the worldly songs and the ebullient chamber pieces, it can be a difficult idea to get used to. Speaking of his sacred music, though, Poulenc said ‘I think I’ve put the best and most genuine part of myself into it’, and the Catholic ethos of the composer’s childhood became increasingly important as he got older and suffered life’s buffetings – his ‘peasant devotion’, he called it, ‘distinctive and hereditary in me’.


Into this context fit the Quatre Motets pour le Temps de Noël (Four Christmas Motets), a setting of Latin texts completed in 1952, when Poulenc was 53. The nativity scene, the shepherds, and the Wise Men’s arrival are depicted in three meditative movements. The fourth explodes with joy – ‘Christ is born today!’ – recalling Poulenc’s early years as Parisian boulevardier and party animal.

The best recordings of Poulenc's Four Christmas Motets

George Guest (conductor)

Choir of St John’s College, Cambridge (1988)

Chandos CHAN 10448 X

IN HIS 40 YEARS as director of music at St John’s College, Cambridge, George Guest built a formidable choir of boy choristers and male undergraduates. He had a particular affinity for French repertoire, and it’s no surprise his recording of Poulenc’s Christmas Motets is so vividly successful.

Even in the hushed opening of ‘O magnum mysterium’, which can seem flat and sleepy, Guest is already conjuring atmosphere, the subtle dynamic inflections of the lower voices sharpening expectations. The treble entry, when it comes, is pure and silvery, and the tenors match it at ‘Beata virgo’, which rises up gleaming and supple from the choral textures.

Guest’s expert balancing of the four voice-parts reveals more of the detail in Poulenc’s often tart, surprising harmonisations than in any competing version. The awkward side-steps on ‘aurum, thus et myrrham’ (‘gold, frankincense and myrrh’) in ‘Videntes stellam’, and again at the conclusion, are pitch-perfectly tuned, and heighten the sense of strangeness Poulenc finds in the story of the Magi’s visit.

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The nuanced account of ‘Hodie Christus natus est’ – often an aggressive shout-fest – underlines the infectious alacrity Guest brings to the music-making, and his ability to give the Latin words meaning. It caps a wonderfully warm, involving performance, ideally captured by the Chandos team.

Martin Neary (conductor)

Winchester Cathedral Choir (1987)

Warner Classics 972 1652

It says something for the technical control and concentration the Winchester singers bring to bear that conductor Martin Neary can add a full minute to the standard three-minute timing for the opening ‘O magnum mysterium’, and not reap negative consequences. On the contrary, this is a raptly sustained piece of singing, more meditatively inclined and inward-looking than most rival versions. And while Neary’s vocal blending is silkier and more homogenised than Guest’s, the Winchester choir is still capable of cutting attacks when necessary – at ‘Dicite quidnam vidistis’ in ‘Quem vidistis pastores’, for instance, and in an ebullient ‘Hodie’.

Harry Christophers (conductor)

The Sixteen (1990)

Erato 562 4312

Of all the versions sung by adult voices, this is the one which gets closest to achieving the clarity of texture and harmonic movement which distinguishes the St John’s College interpretation. This is partly to do with the excellently engineered recording, which, while allowing resonance, keeps the individual parts clearly focused. But the technical excellence of The Sixteen is the really telling factor. Their detailed responsiveness to conductor Harry Christophers’s sensitive presentation of the music is never self-advertising, or bought at the expense of obvious strain or effort. The pointillistic precision at the opening of ‘Videntes stellam’ and the combination of nimbleness and dynamism in ‘Hodie’ are just two highlights in a performance of outstanding all-round accomplishment.

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John Rutter (conductor)

The Cambridge Singers (2002)

Collegium CSCD506

Pitched somewhere between the fresh, youthful Oxbridge college sound and a fully adult choir like The Sixteen are John Rutter’s mixed-voice Cambridge Singers. In Rutter’s hands, ‘O magnum mysterium’ has a lissome, sensual quality, the sopranos achieving a pure, crystalline tonal quality which is particularly alluring. Vibrato is kept to an absolute minimum, which means that this is one of the best-tuned versions available, and one of the few where the hummed sections in ‘Quem vidistis pastores’ are more than a bleary buzz in the background. Rutter’s ‘Hodie Christus natus est’ is also one of the best there is – rhythmically precise, yet bursting with exuberance. A sparkling performance of the Gloria adds further enticement to this excellent Poulenc anthology.

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Illustration: Steve Rawlings/Debut Art


Terry BlainJournalist and Critic, BBC Music Magazine

Terry Blain is a classical music journalist and broadcaster, writing for BBC Music Magazine, Opera magazine, Star Tribune, Culture NI et al.