Music of Today – Pascal Dusapin

Niobé (ou ‘Le Rocher de Sypile’)

Claire Booth (soprano)

Philharmonia Voices

Members of the Philharmonia Orchestra
Franck Ollu

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 15 February, 2007
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Queen Elizabeth Hall

It was inevitable, though still timely, that the Philharmonia Orchestra’s early-evening and free Music of Today series get round to Pascal Dusapin – the Frenchman who, 52 this year, has established himself as among the most significant composers at work today. Even better that the event focussed on just one work from near the outset of his career.

Composed in 1982, premiered in Paris two years later and given its UK premiere at the Pierre Audi-era Almeida Festival in 1988, “Niobé (ou ‘Le Rocher de Sypile’)” can well be considered the point when Dusapin expanded his ambitions from visceral but generally small-scale pieces – with their overtones of his teacher Xenakis and also of Varèse – onto the broader canvas that pointedly anticipates the theatre works, now numbering some half-dozen, which have come to represent the core of his achievement.

“Niobé” is not a theatrical work as such, but it is often tangibly dramatic. The legend of Niobé (wife of the Theban King, who taunted the goddess Latona for having two children as opposed to her 14 – only for Latona to command her children, Apollo and Diana, to destroy Niobé’s; whereupon the latter wept herself to death and was transformed into a stone from which water ran in abundance) is well suited to such treatment – with trios of sopranos and altos, as well as of tenors and basses, placed either side of an ensemble consisting of nine woodwind and brass (with doublings) in a ritualistic symmetry such as Harrison Birtwistle was soon to employ. Here, though, performers do not move around the platform; rather they provide a static though timbrally-diverse context for the solo soprano who represents Niobé: first in her confident assertions against Latona; then in her fear as she realises the danger in which she has placed her children; finally in her grief as she is left childless and craves oblivion.

The performance was a fine one – Claire Booth rising superbly to the challenge of the solo part, with all the extremes of emotion and tessitura that this entails, and Franck Ollu securing a keen response from the Philharmonia musicians and the excellent Philharmonia Voices; sublimating the interwoven instrumental and vocal textures with all the required finesse. At 32 minutes, this is a tour de force of technique and characterisation (and not just for the soprano!) such as will always militate against the work’s more frequent performance. All the better, then, when it is given with the conviction and depth of insight that were manifestly in evidence here.

  • Recorded by BBC Radio 3 for future broadcast
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