Birmingham’s French Connection: Magnifique!

United KingdomUnited Kingdom 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  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