United States Poulenc, Stravinsky, Fauré: Susanna Phillips (soprano), Hanno Müller-Brachmann (baritone), San Francisco Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, Charles Dutoit (conductor), Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco. 28.5.2014 (HS)
Stravinsky: Symphony of Psalms
Conductor Charles Dutoit has, in previous appearances with the San Francisco Symphony, energized the music with a signature vital, propulsive approach. In Thursday’s first performance of a two-week residence with the orchestra, he seemed intent on going the opposite direction. Everything lingered. This time, suavity seemed the goal in three big liturgical works. When it all threatened to sink into a morass of slow tempos, he was saved by a miracle, otherwise known as the San Francisco Symphony Chorus, which stepped up to a starring role.
The capper was the lavishly beautiful balm of the Fauré Requiem, which occupied the second half of the program. Dutoit’s insistence on stretching things out paid dividends as the chorus enunciated every Latin word, shaped sinuous phrases and made gorgeous sounds ranging from airy quiet moments to sonorous climaxes. The orchestra, meanwhile, rode the slow tempos to bring an irresistible spaciousness and beauty to its sound.
In his version of the Catholic requiem mass, Fauré downplays the stern fear-inducing Dies irae, so irresistible to most composers from Mozart to Verdi, in favor of soul-calming comfort. As a friend remarked as we left the concert, “I feel absolved.” Dutoit seemed to tune into that thought and expand upon it, encouraging plush textures in both the orchestra and chorus.
The soprano soloist, Susanna Phillips, unfurled the silvery long line of Pie Jesu, the centerpiece of Fauré’s conception of the mass, with breathtaking serenity. Her sound meltingly tender, she marked each repeat of the two-line section with a different level of volume and intensity, creating a sumptuous musical arc. Baritone Hanno Müller-Brachmann handled his assignment with reedy tone and a sense of refinement.
Philips also lent her pearl-like timbre to the opening work on the program, Poulenc’s Gloria. In this piece the composer seems to be seeking common ground between light-heartedness and piety, wrapped in Gallic charm. But at Dutoit’s tempos, the opening movement (Gloria) came off as ponderous, and the puckishness of the second (Laudamus te) felt forced. Phillips rescued the sluggish earnestness of the third (Domine fili unigenite) by floating a gorgeous long line over it all, with tender echoes from the chorus. And so it went, more deliberate devotion than charisma.
Stravinsky centers his Symphony of Psalms around the 150th, which includes the most extensive musical references of any—among them “Praise Him with the sound of trumpet,” “… with timbrel and choir,” “… with strings and organs.” As the chorus utters the words Stravinsky has the orchestra respond with an effusion of appropriate musical flourishes. Again, Dutoit’s slow tempos robbed these passages of their magic, despite the ebullient entreaties of the chorus’ marvelously shaped phrases, even dampening in the final “Alleluia.”
Everything in this concert was played with clarity and tonal balance and sung with precision, but it took the calming blankets of sound of the Fauré, and the presence of a really good chorus and soprano soloist, to provide the necessary solace.