Polyphonic Voices: Salut Paris!

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Published: 5th September, 2017

Polyphonic Voices’ August 26 concert at Sacred Heart Church in Carlton was a magnificent way to survey the achievements made by French composers in the roughly a century between 1909 (the date of the publication of Debussy’s Trois chansons) and Yves Castagnet’s Messe Salve Regina (complete in its current form by 2007).

For me, the strongest music and the strongest performances in the first half of the programme were represented by the readings Polyphonic Voices gave Debussy’s Trois chansons: luminescent and supple in Dieu! Qu’il la fait bon regarder, sprightly and rhythmical in Quant j’ai ouy la tabourin and attentive to the chiding tone of Yver, vous n’estes qu’un villain. The Trois chansons set up an overriding concern of the choir’s engagement with all of these works: a deep dedication to textual audibility, undergirded by fine diction especially in those works (such as Ravel’s Nicolette and Ronde) where the text is structured as a dialogue or is set in a rapid parlando style.

I wished for a slightly shorter selection of the Poulenc Chansons françaises. A composer whose idiom wears thin after a while wore thinner in a series of largely strophic songs, even if Polyphonic Voices remained engaged with the text and mood of the individual songs, highlights coming in Margoton va t’a l’eau, Clic, clac, dansez sabots and C’est la petit’ fill’ du prince.

The concert’s second half opened with visiting organist, Thomas Gaynor, giving a masterly and colourful reading of Duruflé’s Prélude et fugue sur le nom d’Alain — rarely have I heard the organ of Sacred Heart used to such impressive effect, and Gaynor is clearly a formidable organist who should continue to draw our attention.

The major work in the second half focussed around movements of the Messe Salve Regina by contemporary French composer, Yves Castagnet (Castagnet has provided music for all the movements except the Credo). Based on the Gregorian tune Salve Regina, Castagnet has cultivated a musical style in this work that, while evidently in touch with the music of Messiaen and Duruflé, also steered clear of direct citation or pastiche to create a complex that remained perpetually interesting over the span of the setting. The setting, for choir and two organs (a grande orgue and a choir organ), provided ample opportunity both for Gaynor to display his formidable artistry (the grande orgue part in particular is obviously written by someone eager to explore the instrument’s capabilities) and for the choir to produce massive amounts of sound.

At only around 20 singers, Polyphonic Voices can indeed produce a massive amount of sound; if at times that volume verged on being overwhelming, at its best it was also pretty thrilling. Greater attention was needed at times to the precise balance between soloists and the choir — the former sometimes overwhelmed by the latter even if really fine voices, such as those of Dan Walker and Christian Smith, can more than hold their own.

Polyphonic Voices is now into its fourth year and, I regret to say, this is the first time I have heard them. They invite comparison with Gloriana, which has also used the excellent acoustics of Sacred Heart for its concerts, in terms both of repertoire and scale. It would be hard (and invidious) to draw any neat distinctions between the two: if Polyphonic Voices is slightly more disciplined and dedicated to sheen of sound, the sheer raw commitment that Gloriana’s singers conjure in large-scale works is also pretty impressive. The repertoire is certainly big enough to accommodate two choirs’ advocacy of it and, fortunately for us, so is Melbourne.


John Weretka reviewed Salut Paris! at Sacred Heart, Carlton on August 26, 2017.
Polyphonic Voices were joined by Thomas Gaynor, Tony Way and Michael Fulcher