POULENC: Stabat Mater. SZYMANOWSKI: Stabat Mater. GREGORIAN CHANT: Stabat Mater.

POULENC: Stabat Mater. SZYMANOWSKI: Stabat Mater. GREGORIAN CHANT: Stabat Mater. Robert Shaw conducting the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. TELARC CD-80362 [DDD]; 58:24. Produced by Robert Woods.

This is a wonderful recording. for a number of reasons. First, it features gorgeous performances of two great works. Then, taking a closer look, one is struck by what an ideal pairing these two works are,  although one would not ordinarily think of the urbane and naughty Parisian and the nationalistic visionary Pole as comparable figures. But consider: in their musical interpretations of Mary’s beholding the crucifixion of Jesus, each of these Catholic composers has produced a work that represents him at his most characteristic best. (Another parallel is that each work is matched in quality within its respective composer’s output by a quasireligious opera,set in the past, as well: Dialogues of the Carmelites, on the one hand [Fanfare 18:2. pp. 329-301. and King Roger, on the other [Fanfare 13:2. pp. 378-97].) Until recently, admiration for each of these Stabat Mater settings was limited primarily to each composer’s country of origin, and to specialized connoisseurs. Then, within the past couple of years, each work appeared in a more cosmopolitan presentation,together with other works by their respective composers: a Virgin Classics disc of Poulenc’s choral music, conducted by Richard Hickox, highly praised by James North (Fanfare 17:1. pp. 235-36), and an all-Szymanowski disc on EMI. conducted by Simon Rattle, whose performances were received with substantial reservations by Adrian Corleonis (Fanfare 18:2. p. 395). Coupled as they are on this auspicious new Telarc release, conducted by Robert Shaw, the two works are likely to be discovered by a much larger group of listeners, who will wonder where this music has been all their lives.

Poulenc’s Stabat Mater dates from 1950. and is a far more profound. contemplative. and deeply satisfying work than the better-known Gloria. It is not altogether free of its composer’s characteristic flippancy (for example, the strange incongruity of setting the words, “Oh Mother, . . . make me sense the force of your grief . . .” to music of Christmasy good cheer, punctuated by an obscene smirk, in the “Eja Mater”). But its overall tone is one of mournful gravity, its solemnity growing impassioned at times,but all projected through a sensuous. richly luxuriant harmonic texture — a juxtaposition that is unique, deeply moving, and hauntingly beautiful.

Szymanowski’s Stabat Mater was composed in 1926. Like Janacek’s exactly contemporaneous Gagliolitic Mass, it is an attempt to imbue a liturgical text with rustic directness and immediacy, reflected in the use of the vernacular language. (However, 1 find the Szymanowski the more compelling of the two works by far.) In the process, the composer achieves a fusion of Eastern European mysticism and nationalistic melos within a postimpressionistic harmonic/orchestral conception. As program annotator Nick Jones puts it, “[Szymanowski] created a work of supreme beauty and pathos. imbued with archaisms suggesting the ancient church modes of Western music and the simplicity of folk expression.” I can add little more than to urge the hesitant listener to turn immediately to “Spraw niech placze z Toba razem” for evidence of this assertion.

Despite their obvious surface differences, both these works seek to convey profound spiritual suffering through a postimpressionist musical sensibility. Both have a static, contemplative quality that achieves rapturous intensity. One wonders how today’s younger listeners, caught up in the current craze for contemplative, spiritual music, might react to works such as these. 1 suspect that Henryk Gorecki himself might be among the first to urge his many fans to discover his elder compatriot’s Stabat Mater.

The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus provide utterly radiant performances of these two masterpieces — though the ethereal aspects of the Szymanowski are emphasized more than the rustic ones — captured within a rich, spacious sonic ambience. They are preceded by a rendering of six verses of the chant melody, Stabat Mater dolorosa, believed to date from the late fifteenth century.