BBC Symphony Orchestra/Denève [Supernova … Daphnis et Chloé]

Danse sacrée et danse profane
Stabat Mater
Daphnis et Chloé – Suite No.2

Sioned Williams (harp)

Janice Watson (soprano)

BBC Symphony Chorus

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Stéphane Denève

Reviewed by: Michael Winters

Reviewed: 13 February, 2009
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Stéphane Denève. Photograph: J Henry FairOn paper a somewhat disjointed programme for Stéphane Denève’s debut with the BBC Symphony Orchestra. In actual fact although the running order didn’t really work, the actual combination, to borrow Debussy’s title, of the sacred and profane worked rather well. The urbane restraint of Debussy’s work (beautifully played by the BBCSO’s principal harpist Sioned Williams) contrasted well with the orgiastic energy of the Ravel and the flamboyant Connesson.

Poulenc’s sacred masterpiece falls somewhere in-between, written to commemorate the composer’s friend the painter and designer Christian Bérard – on the one hand grave, dignified and moving, on the other unexpectedly jaunty and breezy, the text bringing a response that could only come from the “monk and knave” Poulenc. The normally immaculate BBC Symphony Chorus seemed not top form – spirited, forthright singing, to be sure, but with some surprisingly insecure entries and intonation. Whether some of these staggered entries (one side of the choir singing before the other) were due to Denève’s rather elaborate gestures it is hard to say, but it certainly isn’t something one normally hears from this fine body of singers. The solo soprano doesn’t have much to do, but Janice Watson sang with her usual attention to detail – her soaring, ringing top B flats at the words “Paradisi Gloria” being particularly memorable.

The second half of the concert blew away any restraint was blown away. The French composer Guillaume Connesson (born 1970), has been championed by Denève. Coming so soon after the concert devoted to the music of Tristan Murail (wonderfully played by the same orchestra) this came as something of a shock – bold, dramatic orchestral gestures, showing the influence of two American Johns – Williams and Adams, rather than anything particularly French. Brash, not amazingly subtle but confidently done and with a mastery of the orchestra that most certainly has a French signature, both conductor and orchestra revelled in the extravagant demands of the score.

The Second Suite from Daphnis et Chloé brought fresh excess and the most successful performance of the evening – who cares about excess when it is as wonderful as this! Denève coaxed some marvellous playing from the Chorus and Orchestra, and particular mention should be made of the elegant woodwind solos. The opening ‘Sunrise’ may well be some of the most famous bars in twentieth century music but very rarely comes off, conductors pushing to get to the climax, but Denève gave the music time to breath so that the climactic impact was all the more striking. Much the same could be said of the frantic ‘Danse genérale’ – the rush to the closing bars being truly overwhelming.

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