Monday 20 January 2020

From the rare to the popular: Fauré and Poulenc from Bertrand de Billy and the London Philharmonic

Gabriel Fauré painted by John Singer Sargent, 1889
Gabriel Fauré painted by John Singer Sargent in 1889
the year after the premiere of the first version of the Requiem
Poulenc Sept répons des ténèbres & Organ Concerto, Fauré Requiem; Katerina Tretyakova, Stéphane Degout, James O'Donnell, London Philharmonic Choir, London Philharmonic Orchestra, Bertrand de Billy; Royal Festival Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 18 January 2020 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
A warmly intimate account of Faure's popular choral work contrasted with Poulenc's spiky late masterpiece

What to programme with the Fauré's eternally popular Requiem? For it's concert on Saturday 18 January 2020 at the Southbank Centre, the London Philharmonic Orchestra under conductor Bertrand de Billy opted for an all French programme, with Poulenc's Organ Concerto with organist James O'Donnell playing the Royal Festival Hall organ and Poulenc's Sept répons des ténèbres, thus giving the London Philharmonic Choir a chance to shine. The soloists were soprano Katerina Tretyakova and baritone Stéphane Degout.

We started with Poulenc's  Sept répons des ténèbres, written in 1961/62 to a commission from Leonard Bernstein and premiered by the New York Philharmonic in 1963 after the composer's death. It is a relatively rarely performed work, perhaps because the style is closer to the Poulenc of the Quatre motets pour un temps de pénitence than the Poulenc of the Gloria, though the fact that the composer wanted the piece to be performed by a choir of men and boys with a treble soloist probably didn't help either. The music is dark, edgy and full of contrasts, sharp tuttis followed by quiet unaccompanied chorus.
Bertrand de Billy used a relatively compact chorus, just over 80 singers, and there were moments when the full orchestra had the upper hand, but in the more intimate sections the chorus' tone was lovely and the unaccompanied passages had a nice chamber detail (and stayed in tune!). This is curiously unsettled music, descriptive perhaps not of the events of the Passion story told in the texts but of the composer's reaction to them. Though a sequence of sacred texts, it is not quite a sacred work and ends on a curiously questioning note. Soprano Katerina Tretyakova, who was placed with the choir, sang with great warmth though perhaps something cooler and less vibrato inflected might have suited the music better.

Considering the unwieldy nature of the organ as a physical instrument, it is perhaps surprising that Poulenc's Organ Concerto was written for private performance in the salon of his patron Princess Edmond de Polignac (born Winaretta Singer, daughter of the founder of the Singer Sewing Machine Company), using a relatively small house organ (these were popular at the time), probably by Cavaillé-Coll. But for all the compact forces, just organ, strings and timpani, it is a large-scale, serious work. The work on the piece came at the time that Poulenc lost his close friend, the young critic and composer Pierre-Octave Ferroud, and started to re-discover his childhood Roman Catholicism.

The organ at the Royal Festival Hall (a Harrison & Harrison instrument, designed by Ralph Downes) is hardly a French style instrument, but it is highly versatile and James O'Donnell's registrations highlighted the amazing contrasts and colours possible in the work, even if the tone did not always have the distinctive nasal twang that one associates with Cavaillé-Coll organs. Like the first work in the programme, this was a piece full of sharp contrasts, not just in terms of attack or volume, but Poulenc relishes the sheer difference between the sort of glutinous tone possible on the organ and sheer edgy attack of the strings. In fact, I would have liked the London Philharmonic strings to have a little more edge, there were moments when the organ seemed to have the upper hand. Overall, despite the fast, perky moments, there was a suitably sober and serious feel to this performance, which made the occasions when Poulenc does cock a snook all the more exciting.

Fauré originally wrote his Requiem as a liturgical work. It debuted in 1888 and grew incrementally, adding more movements and more instruments until his final of 1893 for small orchestra with no violins (just a solo in the Sanctus), plus choir and soloists. It was Fauré's publisher who suggested that as the piece was being taken up as a concert work by larger choirs, a larger orchestration was needed. The result has divided critics, and quite who was responsible for the final orchestration is not clear but it may not be Fauré himself, though he seemed content. However, even in this large scale version it remains a distinctive work, the violins are used almost purely for colour and the main engine of the piece remains the divided violas and cellos, plus double basses.

I have always preferred the smaller 1893 version, but at this performance I came to understand the virtue in having full symphonic string sections in the piece, with ten violas, eight cellos and six double basses. The choir was still relatively compact, around 90 in number, and Bertrand de Billy kept much of the piece at a relatively intimate level. There were superb climaxes, but the overall tenor of the performance lacked bombast and concentrated on intimacy. De Billy kept the balance in check, this was not a choral led performance, but in movements like the Offertoire the choir was beautifully in balance with the superb playing and richly textured sound of the violas, cellos and double basses. The result was to preserve the intimacy and quiet concentration of the work, the strange muted colours of the orchestration, despite the large forces and the relatively unfriendly acoustic of the Royal Festival Hall. The soloists, however, seemed to be in a somewhat different work. Soprano Katerina Tretyakova sang with strongly vibrant voice which contrasted strikingly with the mellow, subtle sound from the accompanying lower strings. Stéphane Degout sang finely with beautiful phrasing, but his performance seemed somewhat trenchant and direct, lacking the warm intimacy of the rest of the performance.

The programme was clearly a draw, the hall seemed nearly full and I certainly hope that those for whom Fauré's Requiem was an attraction will be moved to investigate Poulenc's music further.

Elsewhere on this blog
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  • European song exploration: Malcolm Martineau's Decades - A Century of Song reaches the 1840s (★★★★) - CD review
  • An engaging Baroque recital from City Music Foundation artist, Anna Cavaliero - concert review
  • Notable debut: the Armenian State Symphony orchestra's first Barbican appearance gave us music from Armenia alongside Bruch and Ravel with the orchestra's artist in residence, Maxim Vengerov (★★★★) - concert review
  • An anarchic approach to the everyday: Bastard Assignments debut album (★★★½) - CD review
  • Songs from the Soil: Theatre of Voices launches Kings Place's Nature Unwrapped season  (★★★½) - concert review
  • Strong revival: a well-balanced cast bring a sense of enjoyment to Richard Jones' highly theatrical production of Puccini's La Bohème at the Royal Opera House (★★★★½) - opera review
  • The music around him: a look at Mozart as he writes Mitridate, Re di Ponto in The Mozartists '1770 - a retrospective' at Wigmore Hall - concert review
  • Handel Uncaged: chamber cantatas revealed in new context by Lawrence Zazzo on Inventa (★★★★½) - Cd review
  • Haydn’s The Creation at the Bartók National Concert Hall (Müpa Budapest) by Concentus Musicus Wien and the Purcell Choir produced a memorable performance under Ádám Fischer (★★★★) - concert review
  • The other concertos: Mendelssohn's Double Concerto & Piano Concerto No. 1 from the Stankov Ensemble (★★★½) - CD review
  • Britten and Dowland: Allan Clayton, Sean Shibe, Timothy Ridout and James Baillieu at Wigmore Hall (★★★★) - concert review
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