Saint-Saëns’s Paris 1870-99 [Schubert Ensemble & Choir of Clare College at Kings Place]

Piano Quartet Movement in B minor
Cantique de Jean Racine, Op.11
Panis angelicus
Deux Chœurs, Op.68
Madrigal, Op.35
Trois chansons de Charles d’Orléans
Piano Quintet in F minor

Schubert Ensemble [Simon Blendis & Tom Norris (violins), Douglas Paterson (viola), Jane Salmon (cello), Peter Buckoke (double bass) & William Howard (piano)]

Choir of Clare College, Cambridge
Tim Brown

Reviewed by: Peter Reed

Reviewed: 12 June, 2010
Venue: Hall One, Kings Hall, London

If you ever needed confirmation of the fantastically high stand of choral singing that exists in the UK, look, or rather hear, no further than the Choir of Clare College, Cambridge, in its contribution to the last concert in a well-programmed series centred round Saint-Saëns and Parisian music post the Franco-Prussian War. Its director Tim Brown is something of a legend in the choir- and chorus-world, and the sound he and his singers achieved suited down to the ground this selection of French choral highlights – flexible and layered, light and lyrical, with broad, natural phrasing, superbly focused attack, and unfussy attention to words and dynamics – all you could want from a crack choir.

The inimitable French sound of “Cantique de Jean Racine” would have been clinched if the choir had used a harmonium, with its soft-grained, slightly nasal presence, but Fauré’s quintet-and-piano arrangement still offered the intimacy and concentration underpinning this serene piece; the use of similar forces in his “Requiem” setting, to my mind, makes the orchestral version redundant. Maud Millar was the chaste, otherworldly soloist in César Franck’s “Panis angelicus”, incense clinging to every long-breathed note. The two short choruses by Saint-Saëns were models of restraint and economy of means, the first, ‘Calme des nuits’, approaching an almost Brucknerian quiet rapture. Grace Durham sang the alto solo in the second of Debussy’s Charles d’Orléans songs with unaffected Gallic charm, and the last of the three succinctly pointed up yet another quality in this superb choir – its lightly worn virtuosity.

The concert was topped and tailed by two substantial Belgian chamber works. The Schubert Ensemble’s performance of the Piano Quartet Movement by Guillaume Lekeu (1870-94; the complete work unfinished when he died, very young, of typhoid) certainly fulfilled the precocious composer’s instruction that it should be played ‘dans un emportement douloureux’ (as an outpouring of grief), and it also revealed his obvious indebtedness to his teacher Franck, although there are suggestions in the music’s torrential passion and vivid melodies that, had he lived longer, Lekeu would not have been slavishly bound to Franck’s lofty and passionate earnestness, so exhaustively expressed in the latter’s Piano Quintet at the end of the concert.

Saint-Saëns was the pianist at the premiere in 1880 and is said to have been so scandalised by its rampant and Germanic surging that he dumped the score (dedicated to him) in a waste-paper basket for Franck to find. It’s a work that can disappear up its own grandiloquent massiveness, which the Schubert Ensemble commendably played down. The piano’s moments of rhubarbing to itself sounded natural rather than portentous, Franck’s favourite device, the idée fixe, was subtly folded into the music, and the end of the slow movement had a fine sense of loss and resignation. It was a fine performance of a work that needs to be approached with caution.

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