Piano Concerto in C-sharp minor
Concerto in G-minor for Organ, Strings and Timpani
Alexandre Tharaud (piano)
James O’Donnell (Royal Festival Hall organ)
Kate Royal (soprano)
London Philharmonic Choir
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Recorded 23 October 2013 (Piano Concerto & Stabat mater) & 26 March 2014 at Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre, London
Reviewed by: David Gutman
Reviewed: September 2018
CD No: LPO – 0108
Duration: 73 minutes
Yannick Nézet-Séguin has recorded a great deal for Deutsche Grammophon but his most individualistic music-making and intriguing repertoire-choices tend to be found outside the box. This London Philharmonic Poulenc collection is a case in point, albeit something of a curate’s egg. Of the three live or live-ish performances presented, that of the Organ Concerto may be first-rate but certainly isn’t new, having previously appeared on the same LPO label in tandem with Saint-Saëns’s Third Symphony (the one with organ). Of its new companions, the Stabat Mater is outstanding and makes a welcome on-disc debut, whereas the Piano Concerto, sourced from the same 2013 concert (fancifully marketed at the time under the rubric of Alex Ross’s The Rest Is Noise) seems under-rehearsed.
Difficult otherwise to explain what went wrong given the reputation of the Parisian pianist, his tone less attractive and turning harder than might have been expected, while the accompaniment is by no means adequately quick on its feet. Early orchestral interventions lack definition and certainty – it was the same on the night which suggests that any re-takes must have been minimal – and the account never entirely recovers. Notwithstanding some perky woodwind solos and effectively hushed near-silences, the discourse feels inconsequential in the wrong way, its fuller textures vague as well as heavy. The real-life acoustic of the Royal Festival Hall would have suited the music better without the recording team’s additional halo of resonance.
Luckily the Organ Concerto is much more successful, its fast passages never less than adequately drilled and often thrilling, the more subdued moments suitably rapt if sometimes slower than the norm. The darker qualities of the LPO strings come into their own and, though balancing these forces is never easy, one hears far more of them than one could in the hall. This is a worthy successor to the older RFH version of this Concerto from EMI, the one with Simon Preston at the console of a previous incarnation of the instrument with statelier accompaniment from André Previn’s LSO. You may though prefer ampler, more ecclesiastical sound and less obtrusive timpani.
The most unexpected of this Poulenc trio is the Stabat Mater where the conductor’s special commitment is obvious throughout, from the fury of the ‘Cujus animam gementem’ to the rapture of the simplest choral writing to the broad treatment of its extremities. There were tears at the end as well as applause, the latter retained here which some will find curious given that its more extrovert companions are made to end in silence. This is not music we hear that often yet both Nézet-Séguin’s shaping of the score and the response of the London Philharmonic Choir is spot on. It scarcely matters that the sopranos are a teeny bit flat at the start.
Kate Royal (who appears in three sections) is a much-less eccentric performer than Patricia Petibon on DG’s 2012 Paris-made recording under Paavo Järvi. True, the enunciation of the English soprano is rather generalised and the voice itself has acquired a maternal vibrato. That said, texts and annotations are provided and, for me at least, the effect is preferable to the slightly crazed sensuality of her Gallic rival. In any event the sincerity shines through. What can come across as a sanctimonious sub-Stravinskian hodgepodge sounds here like an authentic, profoundly moving masterpiece.