A La Française!

“Joyeux Noël!”
Hymne à la Vierge
Trois Motets d’adoration pour le temps de Noël – O magnum mysterium
Quatre Motets pour le temps de Noël
La Boiteuse [BBC Radio 3 commission: world premiere]
Chansons populaires à trois voix [selection]
Sérénade d’hiver
Les anges dans nos campagnes [BBC Radio 3 commission: world premiere]

Le premier jour de Noël [arr. Canteloube]
Noël Nouvelet [arr. Jackson]
Ding dong! merrily on high [arr. Hakim]

BBC Singers
Bob Chilcott
Stephen Disley (organ)

Gloria [UK premiere]
Symphonie fantastique, Op.14

Christine Brewer (soprano)

BBC Symphony Chorus

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Sir Andrew Davis


Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 16 December, 2006
Venue: St Giles Cripplegate & Barbican Hall, London

Two diverting and complementary concerts of French or French-related music that began in the candlelit (and floodlit) St Giles Cripplegate (part of the Barbican complex) with “The First Noel” sung in French (this familiar carol originated in France) as arranged by Joseph Canteloube (of “Songs of the Auvergne” fame); a meditative beginning to an engaging recital. Next, in this “Singers at Six” presentation, Pierre Villette praised the virgin with some luscious harmony and Stephen Jackson (chorus-master of the BBC Symphony Chorus) gave a nostalgic setting to “Noël Nouvelet”, which introduced organist Stephen Disley who conjured some lovely sounds from a fine instrument. Philippe Mazé and Francis Poulenc shared the words of “O magnum mysterium” – the former very slow and austere, the latter enigmatic yet specific in lineage in the first of the four ‘Christmas Motets’, here made luminous and vibrant.

Poulenc’s motets paved the way for his “Gloria” in the ‘main’ Barbican Hall concert. Sir Andrew Davis led an excellent account, one full of laconic wit and with a twinkle in the eye. In her solos Christine Brewer was generously expressive and suggested one of Verdi’s heroines in the imploring ‘Domine Deus’. A vital and dedicated choral and orchestral response made a strong case for Poulenc’s joyous and touching setting, first heard in Boston in 1959, music that needs an insouciant and sweet touch, which it certainly received here.

Both choral groups were distinguished in their respective appearances, the BBC Singers ‘crisp, clear and even’ under Bob Chilcott’s assured direction (his premiere proved upbeat and jazzy, bells a ringing). The ladies delighted in Daniel-Lesur’s folksong arrangements and the gentlemen revealed Saint-Saëns’s elegant craftsmanship with the collective twirl of a moustache. “Ding dong! merrily on high”, as arranged by Naji Hakim (Messiaen’s successor in Paris as organist) had enough of the first two words to be thought of as Leslie Phillips’s signature tune!

The other new piece was from Judith Bingham, the BBC Singers’ Associate Composer, a saturnine setting with a two-tone drone organ-accompaniment that proved shorter and more effective than Philippe Fénelon’s (orchestral) Gloria with which the symphony concert opened. Written in 2005, Fénelon (born 1952) betrayed influences of his teacher, Messiaen, and overdosed on metal percussion and low trombone notes. In his introductory note the composer reveals that Gloria is “in a very free style … rhapsodic” – and while this may ‘excuse’ a seeming lack of structure and little relationship to the ‘episodes’ that emerge over 14 minutes, what was even less apparent was a style beyond a parade of ‘contemporary’ stock gestures.

This threw Berlioz’s originality into even greater relief. Andrew Davis led something of a conventional performance (save for observing, rightly, the ‘curious’ repeat in ‘March to the Scaffold’) – in that the strings were laid out treble-to-bass left-to-right when antiphonal violins with the lower instruments centrally placed is really mandatory for this music. Yet while the final two movements were somewhat over-rampant (too fast for one thing) if vividly brought to life (the bells in the finale, from backstage, were suitably ‘churchy’ if not doom-laden enough), this carefully plotted account revealed the work afresh and engagingly. This imaginative and scrupulous performance of subtly shaded fantasy, rapt expectancy, marked dynamic contrasts and ear-catching accents played with commitment and character (and which makes Davis’s forthcoming “L’Enfance du Christ” very tempting) – the ‘distant’ oboe and ‘thunderous’ timpani sounding from somewhere ‘behind’ the audience – is booked for broadcast on Christmas Day.

  • Concerts to be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 – BBC Singers on 17 December at 4 p.m., BBC Symphony on 25 December at 7.30
  • Andrew Davis conducts Berlioz’s “L’Enfance du Christ” at the Spitalfields Festival in St Leonard’s Church, Shoreditch, London E1 on 19 December at 7.30
  • Spitalfielfds

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