Le tombeau de Couperin
Pavane pour une infante défunte
Pavane [version with chorus]
Claire Booth (soprano)
London Philharmonic Choir
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Reviewed by: Richard Landau
Reviewed: 13 February, 2010
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall
In this, the second of the London Philharmonic’s French programmes directed by Yannick Nézet-Séguin this season, we were presented with three relatively popular works, and with two rarer items: the choral version of Fauré’s “Pavane” and Poulenc’s “Stabat Mater”, the latter written in 1950 following the death of an artist friend of the composer’s and described by Poulenc as “a prayer of intercession” with the purpose of “confiding the soul of our dear (Christian) Bérard to Our Lady of Rocamadour”, a Marian shrine which had become important to Poulenc after the death in 1926 of another friend. By turns meditative and impassioned, lyrical and at times almost angry, Poulenc’s “Stabat Mater” combines great depth of feeling with a notable degree of astringency. Nézet-Séguin expertly projected the alternating moods, aided and abetted by uncommonly fine work from the London Philharmonic Choir, whether in the infinitely touching and almost a cappella ‘O quam tristis’, or in the more energetic and equally demanding ‘Quis est homo’ and ‘Inflammatus’ movements. Substituting for the indisposed Lisa Milne was Claire Booth, whose contribution was hugely impressive. Demonstrating total empathy with the text, she rose to every challenge posed to her, demonstrating complete vocal security and a platform manner that was perfectly attuned to the sobriety of the piece.
Preceding “Stabat Mater” was the choral version of Fauré’s haunting “Pavane”. Whilst this performance offered some mellifluous choral singing and some highly refined oboe-playing from Ian Hardwick, it is doubtful whether this version – its text written for Fauré by the Compte de Montesquieu-Fezensac – improves on the composer’s purely orchestral treatment, which is altogether simpler and more affecting.
The concert began with Ravel’s Le tombeau de Couperin’, in which the orchestral playing was hors concours, and, similarly, in Pavane pour une infante défunte’, Nézet-Séguin’s careful attention ensured that all the inner parts stood out with great clarity. Debussy’s Nocturnes were also startling in terms of orchestral virtuosity, with truly silken playing from the strings in ‘Nuages’, Sue Bohling’s cor anglais adding further distinction. In this movement, beyond conjuring up an aural picture of clouds floating across the sky, Nézet-Séguin added an almost otherworldly dimension that was quite haunting. The dancing rhythms of ‘Fêtes’ were projected with great vitality, the passage starting with distant trumpets projected with élan. In ‘Sirènes’, although the ladies’ voices could have done with sounding more distant, the vocalise was secure and properly ethereal.
This concert touched both mind and heart, and it was fabulously executed.