United Kingdom Prom 7 – Fauré, Stravinsky and Poulenc: Julie Fuchs (soprano), Julien Behr (tenor), BBC Singers, BBC Symphony Orchestra/ Marc Minkowski (conductor), Royal Albert Hall, London, 20.7.2016. (AS)
Fauré: Shylock, Op. 57 – Suite
Stravinsky: Pulcinella – Suite
Poulenc: Stabat Mater
The six-movement suite from Fauré’s incidental music for Edmond Haraucourt’s 1889 play Shylock is a great rarity in the concert hall, and this was its first complete performance at the Proms. The first and third movements feature solo tenor settings of Haraucourt’s texts for, respectively, a serenade and a madrigal. They impose few demands on the singer apart from an ability to spin a lyrical vocal line, and Julien Behr’s contributions were ideal.
Minkowski directed a most sympathetic performance of the score, drawing out the simple beauty of the ‘Nocturne’ elegantly and eloquently, and investing just the right kind of gently emphatic rhythms in faster-moving numbers such as the opening ‘Prélude’ and the concluding ‘Final’. His use of a small body of strings no doubt reflected the scale of work’s original performances in Paris’s Théâtre National de l’Odéon, but for the Royal Albert Hall a fuller string sound was really needed to bring out the music’s natural warmth.
For Stravinsky’s Pulcinella Suite the small body of strings was entirely appropriate, but Minkowski made the violin and viola section leaders stand apart from their seated ripieno colleagues and the entire wind section stood as well. If this arrangement contributed to the superlative performance we then heard it was entirely justified. Minkowski obtained the sharpest rhythms possible, and his conducting had tremendous élan. Stravinsky’s somewhat poker-faced wit and cunning conversion of the original eighteenth-century music into his own highly personal neo-classical style was brilliantly realised by the energetic conductor, and the playing, particularly of the brass section, was breathtakingly virtuosic.
Poulenc’s Stabat Mater is surely one of his most impressive scores, for it combines the deeply felt religious side of the composer’s musical personality with the force and energy of his more extrovert style, though here his customary high spirits are subsumed into feelings of fiery anguish and angry vehemence. The level of musical invention is very high, and it is clear that the death of his friend Christian Bérard was a most potent source of creative inspiration.
To this listener the performance seemed absolutely ideal. Minkowski’s judicious choice of tempi, his shaping of the music, the way he balanced his choral and orchestral forces – it all seemed, for the moment at least, as if this was the one and only way to perform the work. Julie Fuchs sang her three solos well, but it was the superlative singing of the BBC Singers that caught the attention more: their attack was as sharp as could be, and their skillfully controlled variations of tone and dynamic level were enormously impressive. The orchestral contribution was on a high level, and it was altogether a most inspiring performance.
I do hope that Minkowski becomes a more frequent visitor to London, for this concert and a previous encounter with the BBC Symphony Orchestra in the Barbican Hall (can it really be as long ago as October 2013?) suggest that he is an outstanding exponent of nineteenth and twentieth-century French music in addition to his proven skills in much earlier repertoire.