LPO/Bertrand de Billy & Jennifer Johnston

Pavane pour une infante défunte

Poème de l’amour et de la mer

Symphony in D-minor

Jennifer Johnston (mezzo-soprano)
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Bertrand de Billy

Reviewed by: Alexander Campbell

Reviewed: 25 February, 2023
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

This evening of lush French classics was a perfect confection. Ravel’s Pavane pour une infante défunte was crisply initiated, the dovetailing of the horn and the two bassoons both mellow and beautifully balanced. This was continued when the theme was handed over to the various woodwind pairings with telling effect.

Chausson’s song-cycle Poème de l’amour et de la mer was written and premiered with a soprano voice in mind, and it would have been interesting to hear Danielle de Niese singing it.  Alas she was indisposed. However, we got mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnston, who demonstrated clearly why the piece works brilliantly with a voice with a slightly lower core. Much of the vocal writing is in the part of the voice where a firm and velvety middle register is needed and Johnston’s singing was textually alert and pointed, and both expansive and voluptuous. She was clearly relishing the Wagnerian influences of Chausson’s writing. Bertrand de Billy proved to be a voice-friendly conductor whilst encouraging the LPO to play its ‘operatic’ best. The short interlude between the songs was a rapt passage of calm.

It is always a pleasure to encounter Franck’s D-minor Symphony in live performance where one can really hear the complexities of the scoring and the battling of the various themes for supremacy. On this occasion, despite a suitably brooding start, the first movement did not quite catch fire – that final assertion of the dominant theme not quite having the emphatic quality to deliver the cathartic frisson it sometimes can. From that moment on however there was a transformation – some beautiful cor anglais and cello playing ushering providing the secure foundations to an account of the middle movement that was restrained. And then on with a sheen to that energetic final movement where Franck’s seemingly meandering, though exciting, journey always leads one to wonder exactly when the culmination is going to happen – and then it suddenly does with a flourish.

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