On May 24th, the Sono Luminous Record Label released a fabulous CD that features the three-time Grammy nominated chamber choir Skylark led by conductor Mathew Guard. 

Described as “the cream of the American crop of choral singing.” Skylark is a premiere ensemble made up of leading American vocal soloists, chamber musicians, and music educators. Known for their innovative programming and first-rate performances, the ensemble has established themselves as one of the pre-eminent choral ensembles in the world. 

Called Clear Voices in the Dark, Skylark’s latest CD features a true choral tour-de-force written by Francis Poulenc, his work Figure Humaine. This is a piece that was written in 1943 during the German occupation of France during the Second World War. The text that Poulenc chose comes from a series of poems written by the well-known surrealist poet Paul Éluard. 

The CD also features some gorgeous settings of folk songs and hymns from the American Civil War.  

Next year will be the 160th Anniversary of the American Civil War, and 80th Anniversary of the end of World War 2. This recording is a fantastic choral exploration of the thoughts, feelings and emotions experienced during a time of darkness.  It offers some gorgeously clear choral selections that were written against the bleak backdrop of war. 

The catalyst for the recording was conductor Mathew Guard's desire to perform Poulenc’s Figure Humaine. As he explains, “This piece Figure Humaine I wanted to tackle because it is one of the Mount Everests of unaccompanied choral music. It is for double choir in six parts, so there are twelve independent vocal lines. It was written in 1943 in occupied France, and the difficulty was intentional. I think Poulenc wondered if it would ever be performed and wanted to make it a true gauntlet to get through. And it is, and because of that it’s not performed very often, because it is very difficult to mount a performance. It takes a lot of rehearsal time to get this piece into your brain and into your voice.” 

Figure Humaine is in eight sections and lasts roughly twenty minutes. The short length of the work created challenges for Skylark when putting together a concert program. Thankfully, Guard is a first-rate concert and recording programmer. Since Skylark was founded in 2011, he has always taken care to groom the musical selections for both the choir and the audience. "When you get artists of his caliber together as a director, really your only job is to assemble a program that causes them [and the audience] to be inspired and engaged...and hopefully bring a different audience into a choral concert that might not realize how exciting and interesting it might be” 

The solution to this programming quandary came to Guard when he realized that in 2025 it will be the 80th anniversary of the end of World War II and the 160th anniversary of the end of the American Civil War. Guard chose to feature some songs and hymns that were popular during the Civil War era and alternate them between the sections of Poulenc’s Figure Humaine. As he explains, “As a listener the Poulenc is pretty gnarly. Purists who are real classical music nerds like myself can get through it and realty get a lot out of it...but for an average audience member who is coming to a choral concert, it is a lot to ask of them end up losing some people because of the complexity of it. The thought was ‘is there a way to make the Poulenc more accessible, more universal and more approachable by putting it in a context where there is simpler music going on throughout.” 

Guard also took great care to make the civil war selections connect nicely with Figure Humaine. “I was very intentional about how we do it. The Poulenc has a very specific harmonic progression. The keys are very meaningful in the mind of the composer, and so every civil war song that is interspersed stays within the same harmonic environment as the previous movement so we don’t break that flow. And we have also paired the civil war songs thematically, so the poetry of the American piece reflects similar ideas that are in the preceding movement’s Éluard poetry.” 

The result is a program of music that is engaging and a joy to listen to. Skylark is a phenomenal choir that expertly tackles the vocal hurdles put in front of them by Poulenc. All the wonderfully crunchy dissonances and resolutions sung by the ensemble help convey the music to the listener in a meaningful, and poignant way. The civil war songs that are interspersed and beautifully sung and act as a perfect musical palette cleanser before you have another taste of the extraordinary French music that Poulenc has written. 

Skylark has a perfectly balanced, ethereal quality to the ensemble. The intonation is exquisite in even the most chromatic of harmonies. The sound is glorious! Clear Voices in the Dark is an outstanding disc that needs to be heard!