United Kingdom Debussy, Fauré and Duruflé: Nicole Cabell (soprano), Kelley O’Connor (mezzo-soprano), Duncan Rock (baritone), London Symphony Chorus, London Symphony Orchestra, David Hill (conductor), Barbican Centre, London, 1.3.2015 (AS)
Debussy: La damoiselle élue
Fauré: Pelléas et Mélisande Suite, Op. 80
No doubt Donald Runnicles was looking forward to conducting his first LSO concert for eight years, and one felt sympathy for him when he had to withdraw from this concert, not only for his enforced cancellation but also for his having to endure the miseries of influenza. At very short notice David Hill, a highly experienced choral conductor, was fortunately available to take over the reins, with one programme change. Runnicles was due to conduct Debussy’s La mer, but Fauré’s Pelléas et Mélisande Suite was substituted. No doubt one of the original intentions was to demonstrate Debussy’s progress as a composer from his early cantata of 1887-88, written when the composer was in his mid-twenties, to the symphonic masterpiece of his maturity, written in 1903-05. But in fact La damoiselle élue stands up well on its own, since this setting of a French translation of Daniel Gabriel Rosetti’s text, for soprano and mezzo-soprano soloists with female chorus and fairly large orchestra is already very individual, skilful and inventive.
The cool, clear tone of the ladies of the LSO Chorus was a particular delight, and if the music doesn’t impose huge interpretative burdens on a conductor David Hill negotiated an eloquent path through the score, and both Nicole Cabell and Kelley O’Connor entered fully into the work’s ethereal spirit, even if their tonal qualities might have been a little softer.
Superficially Fauré’s four-movement suite seems a fairly straightforward, lyrical and charming work, rather in the same vein as the Debussy cantata. But it fact it is very difficult to bring off satisfactorily. Lorin Maazel drove it unmercifully, as if to prevent it from sounding flat and boring: David Hill certainly didn’t do that, but his was very much an “English” view of the piece, for without exactly hurrying (his basic tempi were unexceptionable) he encouraged the music along with little flecks of expression and injections of energy. But paradoxically Fauré’s reticent genius only emerges fully if it is left to flower without interference. French conductors understand this, as do those influenced by Gallic tradition. One such is the Russian conductor Tugan Sokhiev of the Toulouse Capitole Orchestra, who last May conducted the Philharmonia Orchestra in an ideal realisation of the suite. In his hands the final movement, ‘La mort de Mélisande’ was emotionally overwhelming in its gentle understatement: under David Hill the music only sounded rather sad.
For Duruflé’s Requiem the gentlemen of the LSO Chorus joined their lady colleagues on a rather crowded platform. Though they sang very capably the tenors and basses were noticeably less fresh in tone than the sopranos and altos. Duncan Rock sounded a little dry and effortful in his solos, and here again Kelley O’Connor’s tone was a little too forthright for this amiable music. I can’t subscribe to the view, “widely felt” according to the programme note writer, that Duruflé’s Requiem is “an outstanding work of art”. Too much of the score is pleasant low-key meandering in a vague, generalised early twentieth-century idiom, and sometimes sounds like Vaughan Williams on an uninspired day. It really needs a bracing ‘Dies irae’ (missing in Duruflé’s setting) to raise the spirits a bit. David Hill conducted sympathetically and skilfully. Having stepped in at such short notice I hope he will be given the chance to conduct the LSO again soon.