United Kingdom BBC PROMS 16 – Wagner, Debussy and Stravinsky: Sophie Bevan (soprano), Anna Stéphany (mezzo-soprano), Hallé Choir (female voices), Hallé Youth Choir (female voices), Hallé Orchestra / Sir Mark Elder (conductor), Royal Albert Hall, London, 26.7.2018. (AS)
Wagner – Tannhäuser, Overture
Debussy – La damoiselle élue
Stravinsky – Le chant du rossignol; L’oiseau de feu, Suite (1945)
When Sir Mark Elder conducts you are in safe hands, and his magnificent performance of Wagner’s Tannhäuser Overture was all that one expected of him. It was superbly shaped and paced, its various episodes perfectly judged, not only in themselves, but in relation to each other. The changing qualities of emotion in the piece were easily and naturally conveyed.
Debussy’s cantata The Blessed Damozel shows the composer in his post-graduate phase as a Prix de Rome winner. He had not quite achieved the full maturity that would soon be his, but the work already shows individual characteristics in its seductive, transparent scoring and its atmospheric evocation of refined sensuality. The text, chosen by the composer partly to please Prix de Rome examiners in his final ‘Envoi’ work, is a French translation of Daniel Gabriel Rossetti’s poem. It is scored for two soloists, one a mezzo-soprano narrator, and the other a soprano, who takes the part of the Damozel herself. In addition a female-only chorus joins the narrator in painting the emotions and reactions of the Damozel as onlookers.
The original soprano, Sabine Devieilhe had been taken ill, and Sophie Bevan took her place as the Damozel at short notice. Her confident, perfectly projected assumption of the role and her beautiful singing were quite remarkable and a great personal triumph. Anna Stéphany’s singing was on a high level too, and the pure-toned voices of the ladies of the combined Hallé Choir and Hallé Youth Choir provided just the right gentle, ethereal contribution. Sir Mark’s conducting was perfect in style and sympathy for Debussy’s musical sensibilities, and this was as fine a realisation of the work as one is likely to hear for a long time – though performances of it, once extremely rare, have started to occur a little more frequently.
Stravinsky’s The Song of the Nightingale is a creative adaption for orchestra alone of the last two scenes of his 1914 opera, Le rossignol. It is surely one of the composer’s most colourful works, with some brilliant, highly original scoring and some very pungent, sometimes very astringent orchestral effects. Sir Mark conducted a most authoritative account of the score, bringing out its sharply contrasted elements with great skill. The Hallé played well, with some fine individual instrumental contributions, but the execution generally lacked a little of the confident, almost throwaway virtuosity that the greatest orchestras have brought to this work.
What followed seemed something of a step back, to Stravinsky’s first youthful masterpiece, the Firebird ballet, here represented by the composer’s suite arranged in 1945, far better than the familiar 1919 version, since it is more representative of the complete score, with the inclusion of more numbers including the delightful Dance of the Princesses. As a nice little touch before it was played, the ladies of the Hallé Choir sang two of the original Russian folksongs that Stravinsky uses in his score. The Hallé sounded rather more comfortable in this music, and since Sir Mark conducted a strong, warm and expressive performance we were provided with a good ending to a satisfying concert.