A Prized Rarity and an Old Friend, both French and Grand, Have their Night in Birmingham

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Roussel, Saint-Saëns: François Le Roux (baritone), Alessandro Fisher (tenor), Kathryn Rudge (mezzo), Jonathan Scott (organ) / Yan Pascal Tortelier (conductor). BBC Philharmonic, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra Chorus. Symphony Hall, Birmingham. 7.4.2017. (RBa)

Albert Roussel Evocations (1910-1911)

Camille Saint-Saëns – Symphony No. 3 in C minor Organ (1886)

Both Birmingham and Manchester are the subject of claims to be second city to the UK capital. It hardly matters but this magnificent Birmingham concert featured elements of both cities’ musical life. The BBCPO (perhaps more Salford than Manchester—a controversy in itself) were joined by the sonorous 100 voices of the CBSO Chorus; its director Simon Halsey joined Yan Pascal Tortelier at the end of the Roussel work to bask in the applause.

Incisive yet ever-affable, Tortelier, recently appointed as principal of the Iceland Symphony Orchestra and Conductor Laureate of the BBCPO, was heard in relaxed conversation in the pre-concert talk. He also addressed the audience at the end of the Saint-Saens. One of those people who radiates joy in life, he spoke warmly about a towering Birmingham musical figure, conductor Louis Frémaux, who had died recently. Tortelier’s Birmingham memories stretched back to a concert in 1962 in the Town Hall where the CBSO were conducted by Hugo Rignold in Brahms’s Double Concerto with Paul Tortelier (father) and Yan Pascal (son). He also referred with praise to Frémaux’s EMI recording of Saint-Saëns’s Third Symphony with the CBSO with nary a mention of Tortelier’s own Chandos recording of the same work with the Ulster Orchestra in 1990 (Chandos CHAN8822). Tonight’s concert looks set to appear on CD and has been broadcast on Radio 3. Asked about his punishing schedule of years gone by, Tortelier confessed to being somewhat fed up with the retakes and red-light of recording sessions.

Tortelier assured us that he had studied the Roussel score for years and rated it highly. Conducting—as far as I could see without score and certainly without baton—his sure-footed way with the music rather bore this out. His gestures are big, involving and unambiguous. Evocations is a rare visitor to any concert hall. When was it last performed? I would be interested to know. Recordings are not exactly thick on the ground either: Zdenek Kosler did it for Supraphon in 1978 and Michel Plasson for EMI in 1987. That is about it, I think. Tortelier recorded for Chandos Roussel’s Bacchus and Festin as long ago as 1995 with the BBCPO (CHAN9494), one of his earliest with the orchestra.

The Roussel is in three movements, of which the last includes a mixed choir and solo voices: baritone, tenor and mezzo. Here the baritone is placed centre-stage to the left of the conductor, while the other two soloists were placed left and right front in the choir. The orchestra is a big one, larger than that for the Saint-Saëns. Two harps are deployed amongst much else and the whole crammed in to the Symphony Hall staging. The work itself makes merry with weighty textures rather than slimline transparency. Although a work of the abundant French exotic genre and one associated with Roussel’s opera-ballet Padmavati, the music of Evocations was not inherently exotic. There was little to be heard in the mode of works such as Tam-Tam (Tomasi), Livre de la Jungle (Koechlin) or Poèmes Hindous (Delage). The first two movements are in contrast. Les Dieux dans l’ombre des cavernes is largely unflamboyant with textures imposing, sultry and ominous; it had about it a sort of lambent catastrophic mood. This was closer to Franck and d’Indy than to Ravel. In La ville rosé a lively dance element was to the fore. This aspect is echoed in Tortelier’s podium style with, at key moments, clipped, almost balletic movements. The finale, Aux bords du fleuve sacrée, had more of ecstasy about it. The choir, superbly prepared, sounded at times uncannily predictive of Howells’s most exalted manner. The sung words (in French) with English translation were included in the ideally laid-out programme book.

As for the Saint-Saëns, it may not speak the last word in originality but it is most transparently orchestrated, wonderfully crafted and has zest, grand oration and romantic essence. Pages are intermittently reminiscent of Tchaikovsky, Beethoven, Berlioz and Mendelssohn, but the music is constantly on the wing. Grandeur is there for sure but it is always supple and athletic. The BBCPO delivered confidently and joyously, especially in the chattering tension of episodes in the first movement. Solo oboe and bassoon played their parts in vigorous character and the brass benches were on excellent golden tawny form. The organist John Scott revelled quietly in his fulcrum moment in the first movement but held nothing back in the grandiloquent and emphatic blast of the finale. Grandeur was never far away in this performance but always with a dewy smile.

The concert was decently attended although, sitting in Row V of the stalls, I saw quite a few rows empty in front of me. A triumph of music-making in which all the elements mingled with a successful alchemy.

Rob Barnett

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