Catchy Poulenc, Grandiose Berlioz Catchy Poulenc, Grandiose Berlioz

SwitzerlandSwitzerland Poulenc, Berlioz  Tonhalle Orchestra (conductor Charles Dutoit), Erin Wall (soprano), Paul Groves (tenor), Zürcher Sing-Akademie (chorus-master Tim Brown), Zürcher Sängerknaben (chorus-master Konrad von Aarburg)  Tonhalle  Zurich  19.9.14 (JR)


Poulenc:      Stabat Mater
Berlioz:        Te Deum


Charles Dutoit and the Tonhalle Orchestra presented two major French choral works at this concert. The works were very different in style and character; both were immaculately delivered.

Poulenc was considered something of a musical clown in his day, as part of “les Six”, but a series of deaths and a visit to a pilgrimage site (Rocamadour in the French Pyrenees) brought him back, as he put it, to his childhood religion. His Stabat Mater is a mix of pieces in differing styles from Jesuit to Gregorian to French Renaissance to the baroque. The choir often sings a capella requiring secure intonation. To lighten the piece, Poulenc inserts jollity in some of the pieces and some witty endings. The piece is full of interest and delights the ear throughout: a juxtaposition of the hushed and the rushed. The chorus, the excellent semi-professional Zürcher Sing-Akademie, tackled the sombre pieces as expertly as in the wild, aggressive pieces: intonation was – virtually- faultless. The orchestra enjoyed their discordant accompaniment and interruptions and Dutoit, as ever an elegant conductor, was in his element. One thinks of Dutoit as French-Canadian, after his long association with the Montreal Symphony Orchestra, but he is in fact Swiss, having started his career in Geneva with the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, the Lausanne Chamber Orchestra, Zurich Radio and the Berne Symphony Orchestra. Dutoit returns to Zurich in two weeks’ time to conduct the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra on tour.

Erin Wall, the Canadian soprano, wooed the audience in the quiet passages and, in “ut fac portem” with her thrilling high notes. The last piece “quando corpus” was glorious, the chorus in full cry with Erin Wall soaring high above the stave.

After the interval, the choir and orchestra increased in size for the Berlioz. I was less taken by this work than the Poulenc, which has nothing to do with the performance. After a thrilling opening with a burst from the Tonhalle’s magnificent organ (played by Peter Solomon) it was clear we were entering a completely different sound world from the sparser, more abstract Poulenc.

The stage was extended so as to remove the front rows of the Stalls to accommodate the larger chorus, a childrens’ chorus, and a full battery of brass, double woodwind and percussion. I thought the shoe-box Tonhalle just too restricted a venue for this expansive sound, I kept thinking of the stunning Grande Messe des Morts which resounded all round the Albert Hall at the Proms some decades ago.

So why is the “Te Deum” not so often performed?  I suspect the reason, apart from the large forces required, is a comparative lack of catchy melody, surprisingly for Berlioz. I came away impressed with the sheer power of the work, but humming the Poulenc.

American tenor Paul Groves was the soloist in the “Te ergo quaesumus” section of the Berlioz. He was firm of tone, clear in diction and confident in intonation – impressive in all registers.

The final movement, “Judex crederis” began with a massive organ introduction; in the closing pages the chorus still had plenty of voice to rise above the massive clamour of the orchestra to bring the work to a grandiose close.

John Rhodes

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