French Favourites

Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune
Cello Concerto No.1 in A minor
Cantique de Jean Racine
Requiem, Op.48

Steven Isserlis (cello)

William Dutton (treble)
Russell Braun (baritone)
National Youth Choir of Wales
BBC National Chorus of Wales

BBC National Orchestra of Wales
Thierry Fischer

Reviewed by: David Wordsworth

Reviewed: 21 July, 2007
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

A capacity house for the second French programme in two nights from the BBC National Orchestra of Wales and its Principal Conductor Thierry Fischer.

Principal flautist Andrew Nicholson made a beautiful sound at the beginning of Debussy’s ‘Faune’ as indeed did the orchestra throughout, but the lack of any forward momentum, so important in this sort of music which can so easily be allowed to wallow and even grind to a halt, made this a very sleepy performance and lacking in any of the subtle erotic energy that lies underneath the gorgeous timbres.

This lack of a rhythmic focus came very much to the fore in Saint-Saëns’s Cello Concerto of Saint-Saëns. It was left to Steven Isserlis to inject some life and flamboyance into the proceedings, which he did with some success. He obviously believes strongly in the piece but not even throwing himself into it could convince beyond that this is one the dullest of cello concertos. Short on memorable melodic ideas and long on note-spinning – made even longer by the level of detached indifference from the accompaniment.

Thankfully things picked up the second half thanks to the National Youth Choir of Wales and the BBC National Chorus of Wales who sang quite beautifully – and from memory! “Cantique de Jean Racine” is an early Fauré work, very sentimental, but as with pretty much all the work of this wonderful composer never allowed to overstep the mark and here sung in immaculate French and with carefully controlled phrasing and dynamics.

Either Proms audiences have changed or at last got the message – the request for no applause between the movements of the “Requiem” was, I was convinced, doomed to failure, but worked very nicely. Fauré’s “Requiem” must have been mauled by more amateur choral societies than almost any other piece – it is actually, despite its popularity, enormously difficult to get right, providing all sorts of traps for the unprepared. However, both of these well-drilled choirs were more than up to the work’s demands – nigh-on-perfect tuning at the beginning of the ‘Offertorium’, which one doesn’t hear that often, and a truly comforting trip to Paradise in the last movement – and reminding just what a staggeringly beautiful and touching piece it is.

I prefer the original, more delicate scoring that brings out the dark colours of Fauré’s initial conception, but obviously with a full orchestra on hand and the cavernous acoustic of the Royal Albert Hall that wouldn’t have been appropriate. William Dutton (BBC Radio 2 Young Chorister of the Year) touched all but the sternest of hearts with his confident account of the ‘Pie Jesu’ and really the only weak link was the baritone soloist whose contributions seemed ill-at-ease and at one point alarmingly under the note. Again, it would have been nice to have some real fervour and involvement – conductor and orchestra just didn’t seem to do very much – but at least the two choirs set a high standard for choral singing for the rest of the Prom season.

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