Poulenc’s Gloria in an all-French programme with the BBCSO at the Barbican

It is, I think, worth quoting the first paragraph of the booklet notes for the section on Francis Poulenc’s Gloria, the second work on this BBC Symphony Orchestra concert:

‘I heard something so unlike me that my legs almost failed me on the staircase. Excellent choir but…all those worthy Protestants were singing sharp and shrill (especially the women) as they do in London, with that “Oh! My good Lord!” quality. A well-intentioned lady was singing the part of Addison [the soprano Adele Addison who was to sing at the world premiere] with a voice like a goat and all out of tune. I tell you I wanted to run a mile.’

When Poulenc demonstrated what he wanted, the Boston chorus master said:

‘Oh, they have to sing like Maurice Chevalier,’ to which Poulenc replied ‘Exactly.’

Of course, Poulenc didn’t quite hold such necessarily odd views on this kind of anglicised singing when it came to his choral works. He had, after all, allowed the premiere of Figure humaine, his great 1943 choral masterpiece, to be given by the BBC Singers. Choral singing has advanced somewhat since the 1960s and the BBC Symphony Chorus were on fine form, in what is not a particularly often performed work.

It is a somewhat odd one, too. It is neither long, nor short. Conforms to nothing overly sacred nor really secular. Although choral, it only needs a single soloist, a soprano, but she is not the overly dominant figure. Having said that. The ‘Domine Deus’ can present insurmountable challenges for some sopranos since so often this very dramatic section can prove a dichotomy in performances – overwhelming for the voice and underwhelming for the scale of the challenge that Poulenc asks of her. A change of soloist, Elizabeth Watts (for the indisposed Sally Matthews), proved no barrier to a generally rich, yet powerful, reading of this that soared majestically – there was little pressure at the top of the register, a pure, even tone, and none of the vibrato that can sometimes be an unwelcome distraction here. The ‘Agnes Dei’ was also to be warmly seductive.

Elizabeth Watts (Photo: Marco Borggreve)

Some of Poulenc’s scoring for the chorus is a little wayward – the rather declamatory opening of the ‘Gloria’, the even more accented “speech” he uses in the ‘Laudamus te’ – none of this seemed overly compensated for by the BBC Chorus; if anything it felt a little understated. Perhaps the fourth movement moved too briskly, the text just a tad over-accented. The final ‘Qui sedes ad dexteram Patris’ – with some nicely done a cappella singing and orchestral playing – melded nobility with rejoicing in a careful mix of symmetry. The performance probably benefitted from some pace and grandeur here from a conductor, Jader Bignamini (himself a replacement for the scheduled Daniele Rustioni), who was so keenly aware of the operatic rather than just the choral or symphonic. It might just have been possible to drown out the soprano’s “Amen” from within the choir but the chords, if majestic, were beautifully balanced. A fine performance, of a relative choral rarity.

I have to confess that Hector Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique has taken me decades to understand as a work – and probably just as long to enjoy. Constantine Silvestri finally managed to turn the tide for me (not in a concert, I hasten to add – but on a recording) and I have become very particular about the kind of performance I enjoy of this work. Jader Bignamini gave precisely that kind of performance – one of kinetic, electrifying velocity and obsessive revelatory detail – which ticked all the boxes. There were nooks and crannies he scurried into that I haven’t often found myself following other conductors into in other performances; tempo choices that were often quite shrewdly chosen, and rather like opium hallucinations: little time warps that bent here and there, and sometimes had little basis to any real time signature. ‘The March to the Scaffold’ oddly felt as if it had the repeat (it didn’t) so enormously powerful did it feel: If any execution ever felt more designed to anticipate its violence this was surely it. The ‘Dream of the Sabbath Night’ was absolutely incendiary, as spectral and satanic as any I can ever remember and taken at a tempo that never wavered. The weight of the strings before the grotesque tubas felt like a one-way descent into a hell of Dantean terror. ‘A Ball’ was glittering – ‘Scene in the Country’ taken at the kind of pace that zipped by. In what can often seem all too often like a dull Constable painting, this was marked by hints of Pieter Breughel landscapes where the distant thunder of the timpani evoked monumental terror. The playing of the BBCSO was just superb – virtuosic, and clearly energised by a conductor who took them on a journey through a work which can be all too familiar and under-characterised.

Also unusually fine was the concert’s opening work – Camille Pépin’s Les eaux célestes (2022). A relatively short work (about ten-minutes long) it is based on a Japanese version of the Chinese legend of Orihime, the daughter of the god of the skies who weaves clouds to create clothing for the gods of heaven. The work owes much to Debussy ( Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune and Nocturnes) in its exclusion of low brass and untuned percussion – and conversely owes to Chinese music the pentatonic. The sound is effortlessly light in the strings as well as in the woodwind – and it flows beautifully across its four movements. Compared with some of the more recent new works that have been premiered this one pretty much does work as it should – the music is perfectly aligned to its inspiration. The use of instruments is superbly articulated: a large percussion section is atmospherically applied, harps create a mobility that is magical, strings are as transparent as air and the woodwind flow like moving clouds. The performance was gorgeously played. A French concert of excellent quality.

Marc Bridle

Camille Pépin – Les eaux célestes
Francis Poulenc – Gloria
Hector Berlioz – Symphonie fantastique

Elizabeth Watts (soprano), BBC Symphony Orchestra, Jader Bignamini (conductor)

Barbican Centre, London, 19 April 2024

Top Image: Jader Bignamini (Photo courtesy of Askonas Holt)