La damoiselle élue
Pelléas et Mélisande – Suite, Op.80
Nicole Cabell (soprano). Kelley O’Connor (mezzo-soprano) & Duncan Rock (baritone)
London Symphony Chorus
London Symphony Orchestra
Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse
Reviewed: 1 March, 2015
Venue: Barbican Hall, London
Donald Runnicles was to have renewed his intermittent if fruitful association with the London Symphony Orchestra; instead his indisposition brought to the podium David Hill – hardly to be regretted given his stature in twentieth-century choral repertoire. Neither was the substitution of Debussy’s La mer, given that this most demonstrative and emotionally explicit from among the composer’s mature orchestral works had sat somewhat uneasily in the middle of a programme that was otherwise devoted to French music of unequivocal self-effacement.
Certainly Debussy wrote little that was more understated than his cantata La damoiselle élue (1888), in which Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s fanciful poem receives an expansive though rarely cloying setting. Wagnerian in tone if not necessarily in spirit, it summoned a limpid response from the Ladies of the London Symphony Chorus with Kelley O’Connor as an eloquent narrator and Nicole Cabell highly classy casting as the Damozel who luxuriates in her melancholy. Hill secured a refined response from the LSO, not least in the ecstatic culmination and luminous conclusion.
It was presumably Hill’s canny decision to follow this with the Suite from Fauré’s incidental music to Pelléas et Mélisande (1898), once a familiar addition to concert programmes and as tellingly understated a resumé of Maurice Maeterlinck’s play as might be expected from this most fastidious of composers. Hill brought out the wistful pathos of the ‘Prélude’ and gently simmering activity of ‘La fileuse’, while the ‘Sicilienne’ was rendered with unaffected poise and ‘La mort de Mélisande’ with a pensive fatalism such as never spilled over into sentimentality.
Maurice Duruflé’s Requiem (1947) represents an even more undemonstrative embracing of tradition. As with his mentor Paul Dukas, he left a mere handful of published works (14 in all), the present one being the most comprehensive statement of his faith and his musical aesthetic. Many performances take advantage of the later editions with ensemble or organ accompaniment. Using a full orchestral complement, Hill revealed added intensity in Duruflé’s setting: one that, in omitting the ‘Dies irae’ sequence, proclaims its kinship with Fauré’s treatment over half-a-century earlier – yet which eschews the latter’s melodic sensuousness for an overtly contrapuntal interweaving of voices and instruments, in harmonies which readily evoke the Gregorian plainchant of centuries-old liturgical practice.
This is music which needs to flow and remain rhythmically supple at all times, yet also benefits from that subtle heightening of dramatic tension such as Hill brought to those twin highpoints of the ‘Sanctus’ and ‘Libera me’. In this latter, as in ‘Domine Jesu Christe’, Duncan Rock evinced a keen fervency, and O’Connor brought a supplicatory restraint to the ‘Pie Jesu’ – its rapt calm surpassed only by the otherworldly tranquility of the final ‘In paradisum’. Once again, the London Symphony Chorus was on fine form in music whose often intricate translucency can all too easily become turgid if the balance between vocal registers, and with that of the orchestra, goes awry. That this was never an issue was a tribute to the expertise of chorus-director Simon Halsey, and Neil Ferris in final rehearsals, and also to the foresight of Hill in taking on what proved to be so effective a programme.