Evening of French Music Raises the Temperature in Gloucester

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Poulenc, Ravel, Fauré: Elizabeth Watts (soprano), Alexander Robin Baker (baritone), David Briggs (organ), Choir of Trinity College, Cambridge, Choir of Royal Holloway College, St Cecilia Singers, City of London Sinfonia, Stephen Layton (conductor). Cheltenham Music Festival, Gloucester Cathedral, 13.7.2013 (JQ)

Poulenc – Organ Concerto
Ravel –
Pavane pour une infante défunte
Poulenc –
Fauré – Requiem (ed. Rutter)

On the evening of what was the hottest day so far in 2013 it was a relief to escape into the cool interior of Gloucester Cathedral for this concert of French music in which the Cheltenham Festival gave pride of place to Francis Poulenc.

To open proceedings David Briggs, Organist Emeritus of Gloucester Cathedral, returned to the cathedral where he was Director of Music 1994-2002, to play Poulenc’s Organ Concerto. I heard Briggs play this same work in the very different acoustic of Symphony Hall, Birmingham not long ago (review). Recalling that performance and comparing it with this present one there were gains and losses. On the debit side if the ledger the much more resonant cathedral acoustic occasionally took something of the edge off the orchestral sound. From my seat near the front the strings were clearly heard for the most part, except in the loudest passages with the organ, though I wonder how well their sound carried further down the nave. The main problem lay with the important timpani part. The sound of the drums was rather muddy; this was not the fault of the player but was due to the reverberant acoustic, though the decision to place the timpani behind one of the cathedral’s massive pillars can’t have helped. On the credit side of the ledger, however, fine though the Symphony Hall organ is I fancy that the Gloucester instrument is even more suited to this work. David Briggs supervised a re-build of the organ, which was completed in 2000, and the result was an organ which, arguably, is one of the most French-sounding in the UK.

At the very start of the concerto we heard the organ in all its glory; a most imposing sound. Throughout the performance that followed Briggs used the resources of the organ – especially its reeds – most imaginatively to create timbres and textures that sounded wholly appropriate to Poulenc’s music. Poulenc scored the work quite cunningly in that there are many passages where either the organ or the string orchestra is heard separately or, if they are playing together, the organ part is not too loud. As a result, although there are some places where the organ is at full tilt and it is difficult to hear the strings these passages are relatively rare. Despite the resonant acoustic Stephen Layton was not afraid to set bracing speeds in the quick sections of the work but he and David Briggs clearly relished – and made much of – the many reflective or lyrical passages in the work. This was a most enjoyable performance and to judge by the reception he received at the end many in the capacity audience were delighted to welcome David Briggs back to Gloucester.

A nicely turned performance of Ravel’s delicate Pavane served as a kind of sorbet between the two Poulenc courses in the first half of the programme.

For the two choral works something of a super choir had been assembled, consisting of two of the choirs that Stephen Layton directs plus the Choir of Royal Holloway, who I’d heard the previous night (review) and Gloucestershire’s own St. Cecilia Singers. I reckon about 120 singers, many of them young, were assembled on the platform and since all four choirs are highly trained and excellent in their own right the prospect of “buy one get three free” was alluring. So often nowadays one sees choirs in which the ladies greatly outnumber the men but here the balance was as close to 50/50 as makes no difference.

Stephen Layton has made a fine recording of Poulenc’s Gloria with his other choir, Polyphony, which was rightly greeted with great enthusiasm by my late MusicWeb colleague, Bob Briggs (review). This performance, with a much larger choir, was equally good. It was immediately apparent that the choral sound was bright and incisive. Rhythms were crisply articulated and, despite the resonant acoustic, words came over well. Even when the orchestra was playing loudly the choir could be heard very well though I should make it clear that this was not one of those choral concerts where one feels the orchestra is often playing too loudly; the City of London Sinfonia played extremely well throughout the evening.

The third movement, ‘Domine Deus’, introduced us to soprano Elizabeth Watts. A successful performance of Poulenc’s Gloria needs a really good soprano soloist for the role is hugely demanding, not least in terms of the vocal range required. Miss Watts gave what was, quite simply, the finest performance of this solo role that I can ever recall hearing, whether live or on disc. She displayed a rich low register yet her voice also has a gleaming top so no matter how low or high the vocal line ranged she was absolutely secure in it. Her tone was consistently clear and pleasing and, to my delight, diction was excellent. A little later, in the powerful ‘Domine Deus, Agnus Dei’, her singing was, by turns, fragile and dramatic. The choir continued to excel: the brief ‘Domine Fili unigenite’ was strong and precise while at ‘Qui sedes ad dexteram Patris’ the attack from the male voices was razor-sharp and very powerful yet with never a hint of forcing the tone. This section was exciting and strongly projected by choir and orchestra. The closing section, which contained more fine singing both from Miss Watts and from the choir, was dramatic at times and, elsewhere, movingly prayerful. This was as fine a performance of the work as one could wish to hear.

Given the size of the choir and the large space into which they were singing I wondered if Stephen Layton might opt to perform Fauré’s Requiem in the full orchestral version. However, I was delighted to find that he’d selected John Rutter’s edition, which uses the 1893 version of the score with the composer’s reduced orchestral scoring. That’s the version of the score that I find the most satisfying. The performance was highly successful. The modest orchestra, excellently augmented by David Briggs at the organ, made a fine contribution. Once again the choir, including many young voices judiciously leavened with some more seasoned singers, made a well-nigh ideal sound. I admired the clarity and purity of the soprano line and the tenors made a strong impression, not least with their delivery of that wonderful tune in the ‘Agnus Dei’. The exposed choral lines in the ‘Offertoire’ were sung with excellent control and when the choir sang the long unison melody in the ‘Libera me’ they were absolutely precise in observing the dynamics, making the most of Fauré’s contrasts.

Alexander Robin Baker, a singer new to me, made a very favourable impression with his solos. His baritone was well-focused and he sang with clarity and presence. The celebrated ‘Pie Jesu’ saw the return of Elizabeth Watts. One word can describe her performance of this sublime movement: outstanding. She sang the music with lovely tone and was scrupulous in matters of phrasing and dynamics yet she managed everything in a completely natural way. Hers was a truly memorable account of this moving music.

The concluding ‘In Paradisum’ was very special. The mainly young voices in the soprano section sang their gorgeous melody with lovely silvery tone and complete unanimity. The movement was as ethereally beautiful as one has a right to expect. Stephen Layton held the final chord for what seemed like a very long time and that was followed by a long silence which, frankly, was even more of a compliment to the performers than the enthusiastic and richly deserved ovation which then followed

This was a very fine concert indeed. The cathedral was packed and I’m sure the audience was as exhilarated as I was by the quality of the performances. The cathedral was delightfully cool when we came in but, my goodness, the music-making raised the temperature.

John Quinn