Figure Humaine


Francis Poulenc is now considered to be among the most important composers of choral music of the 20th Century. Yet his early career reveals no trace of the dazzling and idiosyncratic unaccompanied choral textures so abundantly produced in the second half of his life.

This new collection of Poulenc’s choral works is centered on his masterwork, the Figure Humaine. Even though it is only 20 minutes in length, the work is a supreme test of stamina, technical agility, range, aural skill and musicianship. The professional chamber choir Tenebrae (directed by former King’s Singer Nigel Short) are more than capable of tackling this repertoire, and this disc promises to provide a new benchmark in interpretations of the work.

This disc follows from December 2009’s well received Christmas album What Sweeter Music (SIGCD182).


What people are saying

“It’s a fabulous disc, I can’t stop listening to it at the moment; it’s practically cemented itself to my CD player – it’s beautiful.”

Jeremy Summerly
Critics Choice 2010, CD Review, BBC Radio 3


“[Figure Humaine is] not only one of Poulenc’s greatest achievements, but one of the 20th century’s most extraordinary choral pieces, with its waves of voices climaxing in the great shouts of Liberté in the closing moments, which Tenebrae control quite beautifully.”

****, The Guardian


“For purity and precision of tone, and flawless intonation, Nigel Short’s chamber choir Tenebrae is pretty much unbeatable.”

*****, The Times

Nigel Short

James Sherlock – Organ

Release date:24th May 2010
Order code:SIGCD197
Barcode: 635212019726

Classic FM Magazine, September 2010

Poulenc rediscovered the Roman Catholicism of his childhood when a close friend was killed in a road accident in 1936. A pilgrimage to Rocamadour in the Pyrenees led to his composing the Litanies á la Vierge Noire and other choral works. The masterpiece here is the double-choir Figure Humaine, a wartime setting of poems by Paul Eluard that culminates in a great cry of ‘Liberte’; but the other pieces, too, are all marvellous. It’s hard to imagine them being done better: Tenebrae’s tone, balance and intonation are superb. All but one are unaccompanied – the organist in the Litanies should have been credited.

Richard Lawrence

The Gramophone, September 2010

The competition is strong when it comes to Poulenc’s choral pieces, both sacred and secular, and while Tenebrae certainly enters the fray with an impressive track record, the inevitable questions will be, is it worth adding this disc to a collection already rich in fine Poulenc performances, and will this make a good introduction to those who have yet to explore on disc the super-abundance of musical glories which Poulenc brings to the genre? The answer to the first is, regrettably, no and to the second, a rather less than resounding yes.

Let me not for a moment be accused of suggesting that Tenebrae is anything less than hugely admirable here. Their singing has a precision of pitch, a rhythmic vigour and a musical focus few choirs can equal; you need only listen to the wonderful pattering effect they produce for "Le role des femmes" from Figure humaine to appreciate just what a good choir this is. Nigel Short, similarly, has clearly studied these scores to the extent that he realises every tiny nuance of Poulenc’s writing and produces that kind of performance that offers .an almost transparent level of textural precision. Nor is the choir’s French anything other than suitably idiomatic.

My reservations lay entirely on their suppressed level of emotional involvement and their corresponding failure to balance moments of introverted reflection and super-charged climaxes with the brilliance we experience with, for example, The Sixteen (12/93R), the Choir of New College, Oxford (10/06), or the Choir of Trinity College, Cambridge (for the Mass, 10/88), and the New London Chamber Choir (for Figure humaine, 12/95). And that’s not even taking into consideration the French choirs – notably Accentus under Laurence Equilbey – who rightly bring to this repertoire a certain Gallic fervour which English choirs can never convincingly emulate. This new release is secure, polished, technically impressive and nicely recorded but the roller-coaster ride of sugar-coated pathos and spiritual intensity I enjoy so much in Poulenc just isn’t to be found here.

Marc Rochester

BBC Music Magazine Awards Nomination

The awards jury says… Poulenc’s Figure Humaine makes extreme demands on ensemble and intonation, as plenty of commercial recordings can prove. Nigel Short’s Tenebrae is astonishing, and instead of being diverted by the musical struggle, you’re free to focus on Eluard’s texts. The sense of liberation at the end is no less powerfully expressed, and as a showcase for Poulenc’s choral writing, I’m finding it hard to imagine this recital being bettered.

Andrew McGregor

Critics Choice 2010, BBC Radio 3
Broadcast 4th December 2010

" … I think this is near perfection for me."
Hillary Finch

"It’s a fabulous disc, I can’t stop listening to it at the moment; it’s practically cemented itself to my CD player – it’s beautiful."
Jeremy Summerly

"Beautiful, sustained, controlled singing – a marvellous CD"
Rob Cowan

BBC Music Magazine Choral & Song Choice

Nowadays Poulenc would probably have been on a regime of anti-depressants; and while this might have made life easier for him, it could also have deprived us of some of his most moving and powerful compositions. The fault-lines, if one may so call them, in his make-up show most clearly in his choral music, where lush chords, often reminiscent of operetta or even American musical comedy, lie alongside fierce, jagged unisons and chromatic concoctions that test a choir’s mettle to the utmost.

Tenebrae is equal to every challenge. The tuning is impeccable, the phrasing intelligent and never forced, the balance always adjusted to the demands of Poulenc’s textures, which are frequently not as straightforward as they look on the page. Not least, the sopranos float ethereally in the more lyrical moments – we know from Poulenc’s letters over the Gloria that he did not want beefy vibratos, let alone the sort of noises described by Faunré as emanating from ‘old she-goats who have never known love’. The demanding top E at the end of Figure humaine crowns the work as it should.

One of the things that comes over from these superb performances is a sense of fragility: in the midst of life we are in death. Partly this is due to the group’s wide dynamic range (in absolute accord with Poulenc’s scores) which accentuates the music’s unpredictability mentioned above: in the Litanies a la Vierge noire, quasi-plainsong supplication is suddenly shredded by searing dissonances. A disc to be treasured.

Roger Nichols

BBC Radio 3, Saturday 29 May. CD Review

Well this next newcomer shows another side of Poulenc, showcasing some of his astonishingly taxing choral music such as Figure Humaine ("The Human Face"), his settings of Paul Eluard’s poetry as a tribute to French resilience under Nazi occupation. Poulenc ended the eight settings of Eluard with Liberté and wanted to have the first performance coincide with the liberation of Paris, but it all happened too fast for him and the BBC singers gave the first performance in London in English translation. Well the singers here are the professional chamber choir Tenebrae, and just listen to the way they handle everything Poulenc throws at them in these three settings. First March, in which the wishes of wise men for future generations die in vain; then A Wolf – the shock of the day and the terrors of night and paw prints overtaking the poet. Third is A flawless fire – the menace under the red sky, death and decay giving way to an indestructible human race.

Tracks 16 – 18 played

A flawless fire from Poulenc’s Figure Humaine and after it comes Eluard’s poem Liberté and Poulenc’s final triumphant shout of victory and an excruciatingly high final note for soprano which I don’t think I’ve ever heard encompassed with such relative ease, and it’s typical of this powerful performance from Tenebrae, directed by Nigel Short: when Poulenc’s at his most extreme they seem to have an extra gear, a kind of choral over-drive that allows them to soar almost serenely over corners that have some of the finest vocal ensembles showing the strain. And if Figure Humaine is the technical tour-de-force, my personal favourites here are actually the rather gentler Un Soir de Neige ("An Evening of Snow") and the work that opens the disc, Poulenc’s Mass in G.

Track 1 played

The Kyrie that opens Francis Poulenc’s Mass in G from this seriously impressive new disc of his choral music performed by Tenebrae and it’s new this week from Signum Classics.

The Guardian, June 2010

The survey of Poulenc’s choral works by Nigel Short and his superb 33-voice choir is inevitably dominated by one work: Figure Humaine, the huge paean to liberty that Poulenc composed to Paul Eluard’s text at the height of the second world war. It’s not only one of Poulenc’s greatest achievements, but one of the 20th century’s most extraordinary choral pieces, with its waves of voices climaxing in the great shouts of Liberté in the closing moments, which Tenebrae control quite beautifully. There’s also a set of tiny, gem-like Eluard settings, Un Soir de Neige, while the rest of the disc is given over to liturgical pieces, composed after Poulenc’s return to Catholicism in the second half of his life. There’s nothing among them that compares with Figure Humaine for power or significance, though the Quatre Petites Prières de Saint François d’Assise and the Litanies à la Vierge Noire (with discreet unattributed organ accompaniment) are exquisite in their own way and exquisitely presented too.

Andrew Clements

The Financial Times, June 2010

Poulenc’s choral music, almost all from late in his career, ranks among his best. Its defining characteristic is his gift for juxtaposing mood to telling effect.

The Mass in G includes ecstatic Hosannas and a serene Benedictus. The cantata Un Soir de Neige mingles jazziness and monasticism. The biggest work – and the most virtuosic – is the cantata Figure Humaine, embracing gentle dissonance and playful consonance.

Tenebrae, directed by Nigel Short, gives pristine performances that convey more than a whiff of English cathedral tradition at the expense of French sensuality.

Andrew Clark

The Daily Telegraph, 19th June 2010

Poulenc had vocal expertise in mind when he wrote his choral music, and that is what he gets in this fine selection of six works performed by Tenebrae under its conductor and founder, Nigel Short. All the works come from that decade after 1936 when the death of one of Poulenc’s close friends rekindled his latent Roman Catholicism. From then on he expressed his faith in his choral music, the first manifestation being the Litanies à la Vierge Noire (1936). He also set the poetry of Paul Éluard in Un Soir de neige (1944) and Figure humaine (1943), Poulenc’s wartime hymn to liberty, all performed with colour and skill by Tenebrae.

Geoffrey Norris

Classical Music Magazine, 3rd July 2010

Short invests this selection of Poulenc’s choral works with a muscular Christianity. In the Mass in G and title work in particular, he draws from his singers a sharply focussed sound and near-declamatory delivery. This contrasts with the more relaxed sound of The Sixteen on Virgin Classics, but the virtuosic intensity of Tenebrae is persuasive.

Philip Sommerich

The Observer, 20th June 2010

Troubled by his own nascent Catholicism as well as the state of war-torn Europe, Poulenc wrote his choral masterpiece, Figure humaine, in 1943, calling the cantata both a “sacred dutyâ€Â and a patriotic gesture to France. Scored for double choir, at times dividing into 14 parts, the work sets texts by Paul Eluard, culminating in Liberté. It forms the centrepiece of an impeccable disc that includes Mass in G, Un Soir de neige and the Litanies a la Vierge noire, inspired by a pilgrimage to the black virgin of Rocamadour. It is all unaccompanied, as well as, in the rich clashing harmonies and ethereal sounds, beguilingly unearthly.

Musicweb, July 2010

The Parisian-born Poulenc was unable to write anything unappealing. An exquisite craftsman, his eminently accessible songs, instrumental, chamber and orchestral music commonly burst with melody suffused with charm and abounding in joie de vivre.

Born a Roman Catholic the composer faced many personal struggles and his faith too reduced in importance for a number of years. Poulenc’s Catholic faith was reborn in his mid-thirties providing him with the motivation to write a number of sacred scores generally containing a darker-hued sonority of a more contemplative nature.

This collection from Signum Classics is essentially a combination of unaccompanied choral music to a mixture of sacred and secular texts. The exception is the Litanies àÌ€ la Vierge Noire with an organ part.

The first work on the disc is the exquisite five movement Mass in G. Poulenc completed this in 1937 in memory of his father who had died a couple of decades earlier. From 1936 the single movement Litanies à la Vierge Noire marks a period of concentration on choral music that was ignited by the untimely death of his friend Pierre-Octave Ferroud in a horrific vehicle accident. In search of solace Poulenc went on a pilgrimage to the Rocamadour shrine in the Pyrenees where he saw the Black Madonna statue in the Chapelle de Notre-Dame. Also cast in a single movement the short Marian motet Salve Regina from 1941 is one of two that Poulenc dedicated to his friends Georges and Hélène Salle.

Completed in 1943 during the Nazi occupation of France the wonderful choral cantata the Figure humaine is the feature score. This challenging cantata in eight movements is a setting of texts from poems by Paul Éluard. The chamber cantata Un soir de neige (A Night of Snow) is one of Poulenc’s lesser known Éluard settings. Designed in four short movements Poulenc wrote the work swiftly in just a matter of days in 1944. Poulenc’s Quatre petites prières de St François d’Assise was composed in 1948 for the Champfleury monastery choir; there Frè Jerome, a great-nephew of the composer was a monk.

The professional Tenebrae was founded by their director Nigel Short and made their debut in 2001. For this disc they are thirty-three strong. With considerable expertise Nigel Short directs the impeccably prepared choir in beautiful accounts. They have the added advantage of crystal clear and superbly balanced sound. Signum are to be congratulated for providing full texts with English translations.

In a manner reminiscent of the King’s Singers Tenebrae’s precision accuracy in the climaxes has a rather synthesized sound; like an electronic pulse. This can feel rather mannered and soon becomes wearing. Immaculate and exquisite singing doesn’t always ensure a greater degree of reverential expression. An increase of tonal character is an approach that I find often suits Poulenc’s music better. In September 2009 at the Konzerthaus Berlin I recallhearing a coarser-grained performance of the Figure humaine given by the combined’Latvian Radio Choir and the State Choir ‘Latvija’ that worked exceptionally and certainly radiated a strong sense of reverence.

As a reliable guide through Poulenc’s choral works the Figure humaine and Un soir de neige I would suggest the characterful Chœur de Chambre Accentus directed by Laurence Equilbey. Recorded at IRCAM in Paris in 2000 Equilbey’s interpretations are available on Naïve V 4883 (c/w Sept Chansons); a disc lasting under 39 minutes.

Michael Cookson

The Times, August 2010

For purity and precision of tone, and flawless intonation, Nigel Short’s chamber choir Tenebrae is pretty much unbeatable. Here, Poulenc’s choral masterpieces: sacred works, Second World War cantatas, are all stamped with his uniquely expressive, mongrel style. One moment you’re in a monastery, the next a nightclub. Harmonies glide, then wriggle or shriek. It’s quite a whirl, but Tenebrae’s firm sense of pitch keeps them upright and their beauty radiates like a halo. Warm, affecting music, thrillingly performed.

Geoff Brown

  1. Kyrie – –
  2. Gloria – –
  3. Sanctus – –
  4. Benedictus – –
  5. Agnus Dei – –
  6. Litanies ? la Vierge Noire – –
  7. Salve Regina – –
  8. De grandes cuillers de neige – –
  9. La bonne neige le ciel noir – –
  10. Bois meurtri – –
  11. La nuit le froid la solitude – –
  12. I. Bient?t – –
  13. II. Le R?le des Femmes – –
  14. III. Aussi bas que le silence – –
  15. IV. Patience – –
  16. V. Premiere Marche la voix d’un autre – –
  17. VI. Un Loup – –
  18. VII. Un feu sans tache – –
  19. VIII. Libert? – –
  20. Salut, Dame Sainte – –
  21. Tout Puissant – –
  22. Seigneur, je vous en prie – –
  23. O mes tr?s chers fr?res – –
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