Proms 2003 – Poulenc & Stravinsky

La voix humaine *

Dame Felicity Lott (soprano) *

Nicole Tibbels (reciter)
Paul Groves (tenor)
Trinity Boys’ Choir
Cantate Youth Choir
BBC Symphony Chorus

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Sir Andrew Davis

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 10 August, 2003
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Although Stravinsky served as a role model for Poulenc in many respects, contrasts in expression outweigh similarities in technique – as tonight’s pairing amply demonstrated. Completed in 1958, La voix humaine is something of an anomaly in Poulenc’s output. Having tended to reserve his deepest vein of expression for sacred and religious-inspired works, the concept of a desperate woman’s fractured dialogue with her ex-lover has more than an element of cabaret – though the subtitle ’tragédie lyrique’ more than confirms the composer’s serious theatrical intent.

In fact, Jean Cocteau’s 1930 monodrama transfers ideally into the music-theatre domain, giving a balance and proportion to what could otherwise seem a sequence of febrile soliloquies. Moreover, the need for the vocal line to remain intelligible while conveying keen emotion means that Poulenc’s usually ingratiating orchestration is fined down to a stark continuum of gestures which expand on and intensify the narrative thread. Even so, a degree of warmth is increasingly apparent as Poulenc’s compassion for his subject – not to mention Denise Duval, for whom the work was written – is made manifest in the closing sections.

Having made the role very much her own in recent years, Dame Felicity Lott duly encompassed its range of emotional minutiae with an impressive command of the overall trajectory and what sounded to be impeccable French. It would be good to hear the work one day in a context which similarly focuses on a female protagonist in extremis: for all their stylistic disparity, Schoenberg’s Erwartung and Berio’s Recital I come immediately to mind.

As it was, Stravinsky’s Perséphone made a less than satisfactory second half. This pastoral re-imagining, through ’Christianised’ Greek myth – of the same seasonal process that inspired The Rite of Spring is generally regarded as the most ’French’ of the composer’s neo-classical works, to the extent that Stravinsky came close to disowning its inherent aesthetic in later years (or was it more the pretence to profundity of André Gide’s ramblings that caused annoyance?).

There were many good things in this performance. Nicole Tibbels’s animated recitation was astutely geared to the many inflections in Stravinsky’s treatment of the part – always geared to musical rather than semantic considerations – while Paul Groves impressed in the often high-lying lyric tenor writing accorded Eumolpus. The diaphanous and often intricate choral singing – children’s voices vividly to the fore in the resolve of the closing stages – was a pleasure in itself, so it was a pity that Sir Andrew Davis’s direction, sensitive and alert in the Poulenc, often felt earthbound and uninspired. Some excellent playing, particularly when depicting Persephone’s descent to and re-emergence from the underworld, did not always compensate for a lack of forward momentum – crucial in a score whose rounded edges can easily become amorphous. At least the gently ceremonial wind writing, recalling Symphony of Psalms, gave the closing section a real sense of catharsis in repose.

  • Radio 3 re-broadcast on Thursday 14 August at 2.05 p.m.
  • BBC Proms

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