Infrequently-Heard Prokofiev and Poulenc Given an Airing by Nézet-Séguin and the LPO

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Poulenc and Prokofiev: Alexandre Tharaud (piano), Kate Royal (soprano), London Philharmonic Choir, Yannick Nézet-Séguin (conductor). Royal Festival Hall, London, 23.10.2013 (MB)

Poulenc – Piano Concerto
Prokofiev – Symphony no.7 in C-sharp minor, op.131
PoulencStabat mater

 None of these works is over-exposed in the concert hall, though Prokofiev’s Seventh Symphony perhaps comes closest to regular performance. It was only really in Poulenc’s Stabat mater, however, that the performance made a relatively strong case for the work in question.

Poulenc’s Piano Concerto is certainly a work that needs an excellent case to be made for it. Here it sounded disjointed and often somewhat lacklustre; indeed, there was an air, whether accurate or otherwise, of under-rehearsal to the performance that emerged. Whilst one could sense an attempt at ‘authentic’ orchestral sonority – whether one really wants that somewhat watery early-twentieth century string sound is another matter – the first movement lacked a sense of overall sweep and was also disfigured by too many orchestral fluffs. Balances were often peculiar too, for no apparent reason. Perhaps an understandable desire on Yannick Nézet-Séguin’s part to avoid sentimentalism had shaded too far into brusqueness. Alexandre Tharaud’s somewhat self-effacing account of the piano part imparted a fluency not always present elsewhere. Certain passages sounded comfortingly Ravel-like, though this is hardly a work to place in such exalted company. The slow movement was more settled: partly a matter of the material, but also of the performance itself. Tharaud offered some gorgeous piano tone to float above the orchestral cushion, but again the LPO’s performance was far from flawless. Quite what the musical connections are between the contrasting material here continues to elude me, but that is either my fault or the composer’s. The succession of melodies was cherished in the finale, probably the strongest section of the performance, and the ending proved splendidly deadpan.

Prokofiev’s symphony opened in gravely beautiful fashion, though I could not help but wonder whether Nézet-Séguin’s first-movement tempo was a little fast for Moderato. The LPO seemed more at ease, though there remained cases of tentative playing. An ‘heroic’ idiom familiar from the Fifth Symphony still registered, albeit, rightly so, in more ambivalent fashion, the disquiet of the toyshop was equally apparent. Waltz rhythms proved nicely balletic in the scherzo. Unfortunately, the performance seemed rather to lose its way, continuity being lost. Nézet-Séguin made partial amends with a relatively frenzied orchestral climax; the problem remained, however, that it was not quite clear where it had come from. The slow movement, though, was handled in loving fashion, its songfulness imbued with a sense of drama that harked back to its origins in incidental music for Eugene Onegin. A ghost from the Fifth Symphony again haunted the finale, as did reminiscences of Prokofiev’s ballet writing, Nézet-Séguin opted for the original ending, returning us to the mood of the opening, albeit somewhat darkened. Even if the performance as a whole had not lived up to expectations, a properly unsettled mood was engendered at the close.

The London Philharmonic Choir did Poulenc’s Stabat mater proud. Indeed, one sensed that Nézet-Séguin’s roots in choral conducting generally lifted the level of performance. Though the choir brought out echoes of Fauré in the opening chorus, there was no mistaking the composer’s individual, if synthetic, voice. Stravinskian echoes (Œdipus Rex) resounded in the orchestra, yet the mood was overwhelmingly one of serenity. Nézet-Séguin highlighted the neo-Baroque dotted rhythms in ‘Fac ut portem’ to telling effect. Choral fury was heard in the ‘Cujus animam gementem,’ but some of the most touching moments were to be found in Poulenc’s a cappella writing, for instance in ‘O quam tristis’ and ‘Fac ut ardeat’. Some of the composer’s response to the text strikes me as peculiar, if not quite on the surreal level of Rossini’s; nevertheless, the performers responded in kind, even if that response necessarily jarred somewhat with the text. Kate Royal sang in an attractive-enough, generically ‘operatic’ fashion; alas, it was well-nigh impossible to discern all but the occasional word of what she sang. There was certainly an embarrassing contrast with the diction of the choir. It was a serious blemish, but ultimately there remained much to admire in the performance as a whole.

Mark Berry