PROM 14: A Luminously Beautiful Performance of Duruflé’s Requiem Caps Thierry Fischer’s Fascinating Prom





 Prom 14: Ravel, Simon Holt, Duruflé, Emmanuel Pahud (flute), Ruby Hughes (soprano), Gerald Finley (baritone), Thierry Escaich (organ), BBC National Orchestra of Wales, BBC National Chorus of Wales, National Youth Choir of Wales, Thierry Fischer (conductor), Royal Albert Hall, London, 27.7.2014 (CT)

Ravel – Valses nobles et sentimentales
Simon Holt – Morpheus Wakes (world première)
Ravel – La Valse
Maurice Duruflé – Requiem

With former Principal Conductor Thierry Fischer at the helm, the distinctly Gallic flavour of this first of four visits to this years Proms by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, might at first glance appear to bear little in common with the vividly imagined, grippingly virtuosic music of Englishman Simon Holt. Holt is a composer who, at the age of 56, is now something of a senior figure amongst a glittering array of young creative talent that emerged from the RNCM under the tutelage of Anthony Gilbert during the 1980’s and 1990’s.

In the first half the world première of Holt’s Morpheus Wakes was book- ended by Ravel’s Valses nobles et sentimentales and La Valse. One of many fascinating elements of the mythologically inspired concerto for Flute and Orchestra created by Holt for the Swiss-French flute virtuoso Emmanuel Pahud, was the fastidious, even obsessive quest for textural transparency and crystalline instrumental colour that has informed Holt’s work from his very first scores, most notably Kites, the piece that sealed his reputation in 1983. And in this respect at least, there is a very direct link to the unending quest for perfection of orchestral texture and colouring that marks Ravel’s orchestral works out as the miracles of scoring that they remain.

From the opening bars of Ravel’s Valses nobles et sentimentales, a work that the composer orchestrated just a year after the premiere of its original incarnation for piano, Thierry Fischer and his Welsh forces imbued the music with a lush, gloriously homogenous halo of sound that although displaying edge and potency when called for in the more acerbic atmospheres of the opening waltz, also found beautifully articulated nuances in the intricacies and interplay of Ravel’s masterful scoring. In the context of Ravel’s wider oeuvre, this is a work that can remain somewhat elusive in nature, yet Fischer’s insightful traversal of the myriad contrasts within the eight fleeting sections of the piece, culminating in an Epilogue of exquisite sensitivity, threw into sharp relief the brilliance of a work that despite Ravel’s personal attachment to the music, had suffered a troubled early life in its initial version for piano.

Contrast was also a key constituent in the BBCNOW’s performance of La Valse. The duality of Ravel’s choreographic poem was compellingly revealed through a beautifully judged impressionist veneer in the elegance of the work’s first half, whilst being driven to a conclusion of crushing power in the closing bars. Here Fischer’s unflinching grasp of the music ensured that Ravel’s disturbing transformation of his thematic material was seemingly hurled into oblivion.

Between the two Ravel works, Emmanuel Pahud’s breathtaking technical facility in Simon Holt’s Morpheus Wakes played a crucial part in the première of a work that was played out against an instrumental backdrop of striking originality and invention.

The composer evocatively described the music as “seeming to thaw out of a slow, dark-hued and quite sparse perma-frost covered landscape”. The two unequal movements of Holt’s fifteen-minute concerto exploited every aspect of the soloist’s versatility and energy in a coruscating journey from the initially stuttering, thinly scored textures of the opening, punctuated by pungent, stabbed staccato interjections from the brass, to music of almost manic frenzy and wild, unbridled urgency in the considerably shorter second movement.

The soloist’s progression from alto flute to the more familiar standard instrument was often complemented by the sounds of bass flute and piccolo in the orchestra. Holt’s kaleidoscopically colourful harnessing of Hungarian cimbalom, harp and bass clarinet played a crucial part in a thoughtfully conceived accompanying instrumentation that saw strings devoid of violins and a colouristic palette of vivid imagination.

Duruflé’s diminutive, painstakingly created output might have been crippled by the composer’s deeply-rooted vein of self criticism, yet his Requiem remains a work of serene, seemingly effortless beauty. Not for Duruflé the hellish descent and damnation of several other composers. Instead the formal model is clearly rooted in Gabriel Fauré’s Requiem and although occasional hints of Ravel float to the melodic surface (Duruflé had actually studied with Dukas alongside Olivier Messiaen) the glorious, often modally rooted harmonisation marks Duruflé out as one of the great mystics amongst French composers.

With Thierry Escaich at the organ, Fischer’s abundant understanding of the language contributed tellingly to a performance that was utterly absorbing in its gentle ecstasy, with the BBC National Chorus of Wales and National Youth Choir on fine form as the music washed gently over the soul like a calming balm.

Although their contributions were relatively small during the forty-two minute course of the work, Gerald Finley and elegant young Welsh soprano, Ruby Hughes both made crucial contributions, with Finley’s finely intoned enunciation of the ‘Domine Jesu Christe’ and Hughes’ plaintive yearning in the ‘Pie Jesu’ reaching out to the audience in a performance that in its finest moments, cast a powerful emotional spell.

After a first half of fascinating contrasts, Thierry Fischer and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales’ rapt, luminously beautiful performance of Duruflé’s Requiem gave the Proms a glimpse of heaven that is likely to linger in the memory well beyond the conclusion of the current season.

Christopher Thomas  

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