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Jerry Dubins
Fanfare, September 2012

The title of this album, Half Monk, Half Rascal…sums up perfectly the two personalities of Francis Poulenc…

[In] The Seven Chansons…The poetry by Paul Éluard and Guillaume Apollinaire, even in English translation, is incredibly rich in symbols of mortality—“Fighting with the hands of the clock,” “A pebble among the pebbles,” “The shortest day of the year and the Eskimo night.” Poulenc picked well, and his ear for the words is matched by his ear for the music to which he set them.

A total of 18 members—10 men and eight women—constitutes the Danish National Vocal Ensemble.…the group has been acclaimed as one of the most impressive choral ensembles before the public today.

The Danes sing with a basting of foie gras that seems especially enhancing of the richness and complex flavors of this music.

This is a really beautiful program beautifully recorded to optimize the articulateness of the singers and the internal balances among the voices. I can’t imagine these works being performed more satisfyingly than they are here, and whether you’re unfamiliar with Poulenc’s vocal music or not, you owe yourself the treat of this release. © 2012 Fanfare Read complete review

Barnaby Rayfield
Fanfare, September 2012

…this is a superbly programmed hour of both secular and religious a cappella works that Poulenc wrote from 1922 to 1959. There are plenty of good versions of his complete choral music, but this selection emphasizes very strongly Poulenc’s unique, unforced mix of Renaissance polyphony and modern harmonies, which, despite his adult newfound religiosity and seriousness, he never really lost.

We open with the seven Guillaume Appolinaire and Paul Éluard settings, a test for the Danish ensemble’s superb French. The sentimentality of the texts is nicely offset by the precision and momentum here. There’s real joy to “Marie,” with the choir relishing those weird harmonies and handbrake turns. The insanely high writing of “Luire” presents no problems for the sopranos here, despite the fact they are so exposed by Layton’s diamond sharp textures.

…what is so pleasing is how the Danish National Vocal Ensemble understands that despite Poulenc’s sincere love of Renaissance style, a touch of wistfulness and saloon charm is needed.

All in all, this is a typical Stephen Layton release, where even the most jaded critic’s jaw drops at the sheer (almost digital) precision and control of the choral singing. The crystal-clear diction is just unreal and makes the accompanying booklet almost superfluous, and yet such is the gusto and drive of the conducting, Layton manages most of the time to avoid coming across as cold and unfeeling. One hopes this will be the start of a complete series of Poulenc’s choral music, as it goes straight to the top recommendation, despite other excellent recordings out there. This is basically as essential to any Poulenc or choral fan…

Sound is exceptionally clear and well balanced, vividly bringing out each vocal part in extreme detail, yet still allowing the acoustic glow and space of the Garnison’s church in Copenhagen to come through…the singing’s too good. © 2012 Fanfare Read complete review

William Hedley
MusicWeb International, July 2012

…a superb disc, one of the finest collections of unaccompanied Poulenc choral music I have heard. The programme keeps the sexes—or at least the voices—apart for much of the time. The Quatre petites prières, for men’s voices, of which the longest is only a touch more than two minutes, are perfect examples of Poulenc’s melodic skill. The third, in particular, with its rather convoluted text, is so ravishing that the Lord could scarcely fail to hear the depth of feeling behind the words and notes. It is beautifully sung here; the quiet singing is perfect…Intonation is absolutely impeccable, and the vocal blend is perfect. The one remaining sacred work is the exquisite Ave verum corpus, for women’s voices, and exquisitely sung.

The performance of the Sept Chansons is sensational. Virtuosity is much in evidence in the rather uncompromising third song, as it also is in the sixth, though does the accompanying “la-la-la” figuration not need to be a little louder than it is here? Listen [to] the superb skill with which the different layers of the choral texture are managed in the fourth song, particularly near the beginning. We are also treated to some gorgeous solo singing in this song, as well as in the fifth, where the pianissimo are magical.

Un soir de neige…is over in less than eight minutes, but it certainly packs a punch. The first song opens with some remarkable unison singing from the sopranos, and the rest of the performance maintains this standard. It chills to the bone, as it should.

All this is beautifully recorded. © 2012 MusicWeb International Read complete review

Philip Greenfield
American Record Guide, July 2012

Poulenc saw himself as man of extremes, as the Half Monk/ Half Rascal subtitle of this program makes clear. Layton is more than happy to seize on the dualities; to revel in the music’s intense ups and downs. In ‘Tout puissant’ from the St Francis set, for example, you get a definite sense of power speaking to power. In ‘Luire’ from the Chansons, vibrant sopranos supply a clarion call to the brightness of summer.

The singing is remarkably expressive in all departments, with the engineering registering as vividly as Poulenc’s genius. © 2012 American Record Guide Read complete review on American Record Guide

Guy Weatherall
Classical Music, June 2012

“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. © 2012 Classical Music

Marc Rochester
Gramophone, June 2012

Layton and the DNVE follow PrauliƆš with Poulenc

The Danish National Vocal Ensemble face some pretty stiff competition with this disc of unaccompanied Poulenc but they do not just hold their own; they sweep a lot of it aside. Under Stephen Layton’s perceptive and often inspired direction, they capture the essential dichotomy of Poulenc’s writing as encapsulated in the title of the disc…

Layton has shown his exceptional affinity with the music of Poulenc before…and it shines through every nuance here.

The lightning changes of mood, the abrupt transformations from the boisterous to the intimate and, of course, the unsettling switching between prayerful and playful are brought across with complete composure, and what might come across as an awkward juxtaposition of unrelated ideas becomes a natural progression of ingenious musical invention never blunting its highly distinctive edge.

Exquisitely turned phrases and superbly poised melodic lines…bring a sense of coherence to a programme in which the longest of the 29 tracks only slightly overruns the three and a half-minute mark.

On absolutely top form, the choir fluidly switches between the highly charged energy of the breathlessly galloping ‘Marie’, with its captivatingly subtle harmonic switches, and the ethereally floating quietude of Ave verum corpus with absolute assurance…this is a one-disc Poulenc compendium no Poulencophile should be without. © 2012 Gramophone Read complete review on Gramophone

Stephen Eddins, June 2012

…taken simply as collection of Poulenc’s a cappella choral music, the album is largely successful and engaging. Layton pays exquisitely close attention to the details of the scores, especially subtleties of dynamics, and the Danish National Vocal Ensemble aptly follows his lead. The ensemble can’t be faulted on technique; its tone is pure and well blended. The sound is clean and clear, with a warm ambience. © 2012 Read complete review

Roger Nichols
BBC Music Magazine, June 2012

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!” …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 doesn’t worry me, given the spirit and energy of the singing. Words too are crystal clear, with excellent French. © 2012 BBC Music Magazine

Graham Rickson
The Arts Desk, May 2012

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 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…the real masterpiece is Un soir de neige, a wartime setting of poetry by Paul Éluard. The opening of Bois meutri is chilling. Fabulous, in other words. © 2012 The Arts Desk Read complete review

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