In fact, Jean Cocteaus 1930 monodrama transfers ideally into the music-theatre domain, giving a balance and proportion to what could otherwise seem a sequence of febrile soliloquies. Moreover, the need for the vocal line to remain intelligible while conveying keen emotion means that Poulencs usually ingratiating orchestration is fined down to a stark continuum of gestures which expand on and intensify the narrative thread. Even so, a degree of warmth is increasingly apparent as Poulencs compassion for his subject not to mention Denise Duval, for whom the work was written is made manifest in the closing sections.
Having made the role very much her own in recent years, Dame Felicity Lott duly encompassed its range of emotional minutiae with an impressive command of the overall trajectory and what sounded to be impeccable French. It would be good to hear the work one day in a context which similarly focuses on a female protagonist in extremis: for all their stylistic disparity, Schoenbergs Erwartung and Berios Recital I come immediately to mind.
As it was, Stravinskys Perséphone made a less than satisfactory second half. This pastoral re-imagining, through Christianised Greek myth of the same seasonal process that inspired The Rite of Spring is generally regarded as the most French of the composers neo-classical works, to the extent that Stravinsky came close to disowning its inherent aesthetic in later years (or was it more the pretence to profundity of André Gides ramblings that caused annoyance?).
There were many good things in this performance. Nicole Tibbelss animated recitation was astutely geared to the many inflections in Stravinskys treatment of the part always geared to musical rather than semantic considerations while Paul Groves impressed in the often high-lying lyric tenor writing accorded Eumolpus. The diaphanous and often intricate choral singing childrens voices vividly to the fore in the resolve of the closing stages was a pleasure in itself, so it was a pity that Sir Andrew Daviss direction, sensitive and alert in the Poulenc, often felt earthbound and uninspired. Some excellent playing, particularly when depicting Persephones descent to and re-emergence from the underworld, did not always compensate for a lack of forward momentum crucial in a score whose rounded edges can easily become amorphous. At least the gently ceremonial wind writing, recalling Symphony of Psalms, gave the closing section a real sense of catharsis in repose.
- Radio 3 re-broadcast on Thursday 14 August at 2.05 p.m.
- BBC Proms