Birmingham’s French Connection: Magnifique!


 Poulenc and Fauré. David Briggs (organ), Grace Davidson (soprano), Greg Skidmore (baritone), Ex Cathedra, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, Jeffrey Skidmore (conductor). Symphony Hall, Birmingham, 17.2.2013 (JQ)

Poulenc: Concerto for Organ, Strings and Timpani in G minor
Figure humaine
Fauré: Requiem, Op. 48 (1900 version)

In our anniversary-obsessed world the celebrations of Britten, Verdi and Wagner will loom extremely large in 2013. It would be easy to overlook the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Francis Poulenc but Birmingham’s International Concert Season included this handsome tribute to him very close to the actual anniversary of his demise; he died on 30 January, 1963. Some 19 hours after the end of their excellent concert with Simone Young (review) a sizeable contingent of the CBSO joined Birmingham’s crack choir, Ex Cathedra for this enticing concert.

First we heard one of Poulenc’s most enduring works, his Organ Concerto. Having been reminded only recently of the virtuosity of David Briggs on a CD of his own music (review) it was good to encounter him in person, playing Poulenc’s concerto on Symphony Hall’s superb Klais organ. For this performance Briggs was able to take advantage of the organ’s alternative, mobile console which is electrically connected to the main console. This means that the soloist can be positioned at the right hand side of the platform with an excellent sight line to the conductor rather than being in splendid isolation at the main console high above the platform.

The performance was an extremely good one. I suspect that the Symphony Hall instrument, for all its virtues, can’t truly replicate the timbre of an authentic French organ but the sounds that Briggs drew from it were thrilling at times (the majestic, dissonant beginning) and at other times very subtle (in the Andante moderato section, for example.) Jeffrey Skidmore, an alert and attentive accompanist, drew some fine tone from the CBSO strings, not least in the section marked Très calme; Lent. It was fitting that at the end the CBSO timpanist, Matthew Perry, should have been singled out for a bow for his incisive playing was a telling feature throughout the concerto. In the penultimate section Briggs brought out Poulenc’s puckish side very well while the concluding Largo was sensitively done by all concerned.

After the concerto came Figure humaine, Poulenc’s remarkable setting of eight poems by Paul Éluard for a cappella double choir. Not only is the music itself remarkable but so too is the story of the composition of the work in occupied France in 1943, as related in Charlotte Gardner’s excellent programme note. The poet was in hiding on account of his links to the Resistance and had to smuggle his texts to Poulenc who, in turn, had to arrange for the completed music to be spirited out of France to London, where the work was first heard in 1945. No wonder, for the poems were a rallying call to the French in their time of tribulation, not least the final poem, ‘Liberté’.

Poulenc’s score makes huge demands on the performers but Ex Cathedra, numbering some sixty singers, proved equal to every challenge. I was impressed with their ability to articulate brisk music incisively and with clarity, as in the opening of the second piece, ‘En chantant les servantes s’élancent’ or the fifth song, ‘Riant du ciel et des planètes’. Perhaps even more impressive was the way in which they delivered the many lyrical, often bittersweet passages of music, such as the delicate ‘Le jour m’étonne et la nuit me fair peur’. The performance of the concluding ‘Liberté’ was magnificent. Éluard’s verses are made into an increasingly impassioned paean to freedom by Poulenc: one can only imagine the significance these words must have carried for Frenchmen in 1943. The singers were tremendously convincing here, imparting great urgency and fervour. And as Poulenc’s intense vocal lines moved ever higher the sopranos were fearless and tireless, never surrendering tonal quality, until some of the attained Poulenc’s pinnacle: top E, I believe. This was a very fine performance indeed of an immensely demanding work. At the end Jeffrey Skidmore looked delighted – rightly so.

After the interval we were in the calmer waters of Fauré’s Requiem. This was given in his final, 1900 version for full orchestra. I prefer to hear this luminous work in the 1893 version for chamber orchestra as that seems to me to impart the ideal intimacy to this score. However, the 1900 version should not be neglected in favour of the earlier version and in any case it was the right choice for this large hall. It should be said straightaway that even in the work’s few climaxes the accompaniment by the CBSO – with David Briggs once more at the organ console – never overwhelmed the singers of Ex Cathedra. In part that’s a tribute to the sensitivity of the players and the care with which Jeffrey Skidmore balanced everything but it also says quite a bit about the tonal strength of the choir. Skidmore had his singers use French pronunciation of the Latin text. That resulted in some vowel sounds in particular that struck our English ears quite oddly. I wasn’t quite sure what to make of this. On the one hand it demonstrated undoubted authenticity and also symbolised the care taken over the preparation of the performance – this was no ‘routine’ run-through of a standard repertoire piece. On the other hand, as there wasn’t a Cavaillé-Coll organ on hand and we couldn’t hear authentic French timbres from, say, the brass and woodwind, I wondered if the result wasn’t something of a mélange. That said, even if one didn’t fully buy into the pronunciation the singing itself was very fine indeed.

The two soloists sang with the choir – a pleasingly collegiate touch – and stepped forward to the front of the choir but behind the orchestra for their solos. Though they were thus positioned further back than one might have expected neither seemed to have the slightest difficulty in projecting their solos. Greg Skidmore has a good, firm baritone which he used to excellent effect in both his solos. Grace Davidson gave a beguiling account of the famous ‘Pie Jesu’. Her tone was warm and pure and her gently beseeching delivery was just right. The choir sang with great finesse and control. Line was always paramount, it seemed, and the diction was excellent throughout. The orchestral playing demonstrated consistent refinement and from my seat in the stalls it appeared that the balance between orchestra and singers was expertly judged. Jeffrey Skidmore’s tempi were always well judged and I appreciated above all the sense of flow that he imparted to the music. The sopranos of Ex Cathedra brought the performance to a perfect conclusion, singing their serene line in the ‘In Paradisum’ with radiant purity. This set the seal on a very fine and thoughtful performance.

John Quinn

Details of forthcoming concerts in the Birmingham International Concerts season 2012/13 here

Details of forthcoming concerts in Ex Cathedra’s 2012/13 season here

Print Friendly


Comments are closed.

Recent Reviews


Season Previews

  • NEW! The Cleveland Orchestra’s 2018 Blossom Music Festival __________________________________
  • NEW! LA Opera’s 2018/19 Season __________________________________
  • NEW! Buxton Festival 2018 and its New CEO __________________________________
  • NEW! Classical Music at the Barbican in 2018/19 __________________________________
  • NEW! Violinist Liza Ferschtman Celebrates Bernstein’s Centenary in 2018 __________________________________
  • NEW! The Piccadilly Chamber Music Series in 2018 __________________________________
  • NEW! Opera and More in Buenos Aires in 2018 __________________________________
  • NEW! Gloucester Choral Society’s Hubert Parry’s Centenary Celebrations in May 2018 __________________________________
  • NEW! Spend a Penny for Grange Park Opera’s Lavatorium Rotundum __________________________________
  • NEW! Bampton Classical Opera in 2018 __________________________________
  • NEW! The 2018 Lucerne Summer Festival __________________________________
  • NEW! Leeds Lieder’s Forthcoming Schubert Song Series in Leeds and Sheffield __________________________________
  • NEW! Contemporary Music from Manchester’s Psappha in 2017-18 __________________________________
  • UPDATED! I Musicanti’s Alexandra and the Russians at St Johns Smith Square in 2018 __________________________________
  • NEW! Anna Netrebko and Yusif Eyvazov’s Return to London in May 2018 __________________________________
  • NEW! St John’s Smith Square announces its 2017/18 Season __________________________________
  • NEW! The Pierre Boulez Saal’s 2017/18 Season in Berlin __________________________________
  • Subscribe to Review Summary Newsletter

    Reviews by Reviewer

    News and Featured Articles

  • NEW! A Q&A WITH ANDREA CARÈ AS HE RETURNS TO COVENT GARDEN AS DON JOSÉ __________________________________
  • NEW! Chelsea Opera Group to Perform Rossini’s Mosè in Egitto at Cadogan Hall __________________________________
  • NEW! A Celebration of the Work of Dai Fujikura at Wigmore Hall on 17 February __________________________________
  • NEW! Rafael de Acha Introduces Some of Cincinnati’s New Musical Entrepreneurs __________________________________
  • NEW! ENB’s 2018 Emerging Dancer will be Chosen at the London Coliseum on 11 June __________________________________
  • NEW! Akram Khan’s Giselle for ENB Can be Seen in Cinemas from 25 April __________________________________
  • NEW! BARRY DOUGLAS IN CONVERSATION WITH GEOFFREY NEWMAN __________________________________
  • UPDATED! SOME OF OUR REVIEWERS CHOOSE THEIR ‘BEST OF 2017’ __________________________________
  • NEW! Dénes Várjon Talks to Sebastian Smallshaw About Budapest’s __________________________________
  • R.I.P. IN MEMORIAM – DMITRI HVOROSTOVSKY (1962-2017) __________________________________
  • NEW! Ann Murray’s Masterclass at the V&A Part of Opera: Passion, Power and Politics __________________________________
  • NEW! A Composer Speaks Up for the Environment: An Interview with Margaret Brouwer __________________________________
  • Archives by Week

    Archives by Month

    Search S&H