City of London Sinfonia/Stephen Layton with Peter Wright & Elizabeth Watts – Poulenc: The Music and the Man

Les Animaux modèles
Concerto in G minor for Organ, Strings and Timpani
Pavane pour une infante défunte

Peter Wright (organ)

Elizabeth Watts (soprano)

Holst Singers

City of London Sinfonia
Stephen Layton

Reviewed by: Ben Hogwood

Reviewed: 11 April, 2013
Venue: Southwark Cathedral, London

City of London Sinfonia in rehearsal. Photograph: City of London Sinfonia festival devoted to the music of Francis Poulenc (1899-1963) ended in appropriately high spirits with a concert given in the splendid setting of Southwark Cathedral. We began with the heat-haze of a July morning, vividly portrayed by colourful strings and woodwinds in the opening number of the suite from the ballet Les Animaux modèles (1940). This highly attractive score has numerous pictorial references. Stephen Layton’s responsive conducting drew from each a pleasing humour, laced with a little nostalgia. We enjoyed the sultry, exotic ‘Le Lion amoreux’, strutting cockerels fighting to the death in ‘Les Deux Coqs’, the music having the wind taken from its sails as the duel reached its fatal climax, and the indulgent added-note harmonies of ‘Le Repas de Midi’. The music danced and swung, and there was an attractive oboe solo from Philip Harmer in ‘La Mort et le Bûcheron’, a reflective moment.

A more serious tone is employed in the Organ Concerto, the masterpiece that got Poulenc’s career back on track in 1938, after the death of his closest friend Pierre-Octave Ferroud. The struggles of Poulenc’s reconciliation with Christianity can also be heard in the music, with the strings forcefully led by Alexandra Wood, and with strong input from timpanist Tristan Fry. Peter Wright, once Stephen Layton’s boss at Southwark Cathedral, gave an authoritative performance, the organ and orchestra aligning quickly despite being cut off from each other visually. Some detail in the upper reaches of the organ part was lost, but the performance as a whole responded to the acoustic with commendable clarity and power.

It was a nice touch to offer a moment of repose in the form of Ravel’s Pavane, gracefully played, Layton leaning ever so slightly on the yearning harmonies. This served as a prelude to Poulenc’s high-spirited Gloria, one of the most vivacious settings of this text. The foot-tapping rhythms and winsome melodies were firmly to the fore. Layton conducted with obvious enjoyment, and was helped by the superb contribution of the Holst Singers, whose clarion-call in the closing ‘Qui sedes’ was particularly striking, the ‘Amen’ sung as one. This is music with a smile on its face, and Elizabeth Watts overcame a relatively poor placement, next to the front row of the audience without any elevation, to project beautifully in the ‘Domine Deus’. The unwinding melody, with its steep contour, was extremely well controlled. The balance was ideal, suggesting careful rehearsal, and Layton also secured crisp ensemble and rich tone from brass and woodwinds. This was a performance to blow away winter cobwebs, and Poulenc has rightly been given his moment in the spotlight in a crowded year of anniversaries.

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