The Rest is Noise – London Philharmonic/Yannick Nézet-Séguin with Alexandre Tharaud and Kate Royal – Poulenc & Prokofiev

Piano Concerto
Symphony No.7 in C sharp minor, Op.131
Stabat mater

Alexandre Tharaud (piano)

Kate Royal (soprano)

London Philharmonic Choir

London Philharmonic Orchestra
Yannick Nézet-Séguin

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 23 October, 2013
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

Poulenc and Prokofiev were bridge-playing friends when the Russian was in Paris in the 1920s, so the coupling of these pianist-composers in this concert was apt. The Frenchman died fifty years ago this year, Prokofiev sixty.

Alexandre Tharaud. Photograph: Marco Borggreve licensed to Virgin ClassicsPoulenc’s Piano Concerto was first heard in Boston in January 1950 with the composer as soloist, Charles Munch conducting. It opens with a typically insouciant and bittersweet melody, which refuses to leave the memory long afterwards. But the piece as a whole, for all that it lasts only 20 minutes, fails to live up to such initial promise, being structurally messy, insipid in expression and woefully short on distinction. The versatile Alexandre Tharaud played stylishly and with esprit, if sometimes with reticence, but sounded short on commitment; by contrast the LPO was string- and brass-heavy, the woodwinds losing out, and there were some individual uncertainties. Both the slow movement and finale lack for thematic engagement, the à la française finale relying solely on a quotation from Stephen Foster, or ‘Swanee River’, or a French folksong (there seems doubt as to exactly what) for the ears to grab at.

Yannick Nézet-Séguin. Photograph: Marco BorggrevePoulenc’s setting of the Stabat mater (completed in 1951) raises the stakes somewhat, yet although the score is recognisably Poulencian and has a sincerity not always found elsewhere in his output (the composer alluded to this), no doubt because he was remembering his friend Christian Bérard, there remains the too-obvious influences, not least Stravinsky. One might also cite, briefly, Vaughan Williams and Poulenc’s close chum Lennox Berkeley, imitations of Plainsong, and ‘baroque severe’, something out of the songbooks of J. S. Bach and Handel: a bit too much of everything but not totally adding up; Poulenc the magpie who didn’t always make his own nest. The twelve short movements (playing here for 32 minutes), reflecting the Stabat mater’s 13th-century Latin text, are often over in a flash and without enough time to get under the listener’s skin. No doubting this fine performance though, Yannick Nézet-Séguin alive to the solemn and dramatic aspects of Poulenc’s writing, its radiance, jauntiness, pealing vitality and ritual dance. The London Philharmonic Choir was splendid, singing with strength, sensitivity and devotion, the LPO also contributing much under Yannick Nézet-Séguin’s demonstrative and considered conducting. Kate Royal did all she needed to.

As the concert’s centrepiece, Prokofiev’s wonderful Seventh Symphony (or, given the two versions of Symphony No.4, his eighth) stole the show, this deceptive masterpiece from 1952 that started life as a piece for children and ended up as something for discerning adults. Back in January 2012, the LPO and Alexander Vedernikov gave a stimulating account of this underrated score, and here Nézet-Séguin followed suit bringing out the music’s soulful and epic qualities, also its fairy-tale leanings. The LPO’s strings were rich and imposing, and very precisely articulated, and the brass had a not-inappropriate Soviet-style edge. How prickly and winsome was the second-movement waltz, how touching the endearing slow movement, lovingly turned, any tears then wiped away by the vaudeville-like finale, knockabout fun that is easy to vulgarise, avoided here, until the Symphony’s opening music returns and the work begins to fade from view, Prokofiev’s farewell to the Symphony as a genre. Fortunately, like his Russian colleague, Nézet-Séguin opted for the simple and poignant original ending rather than the coerced optimistic close that the authorities then obliged from the composer. Whoever conducts the LPO next in this great work now has two tough acts to follow.

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