We began 2015-16 with an all-French gala—and we close the fall portion of the season with another French concert that’s nearly its mirror image. As was appropriate for an opener in Crouse Hinds Theater, the earlier concert was anchored in two spectacular works, with something more lightweight in between. As is appropriate for the year’s first concert in the more intimate setting of St. Paul’s, this afternoon has two more refined works as its pillars, with something more dramatic in between. Two composers from that earlier concert return as well, although in works that reveal radically different aspects of their artistry. The opener featured Hector Berlioz (1803-1869) at his most spectacular and Francis Poulenc (1899-1963) at his most whimsical; this afternoon brings us Berlioz at his most intimate and Poulenc at his most thunderous.
The program starts with Berlioz’s Nuits d’été (Summer Nights). Berlioz is best known as an experimenter who pushed the limits with vast orchestral forces, unprecedented instrumental sounds, and heightened emotion. But he also had a more restrained side, and nowhere does it appear more attractively than in the six songs he wrote to texts of the poet Théophile Gautier. They were not intended as a cycle (which is why it’s common to select from among them in performance—this afternoon, we’ve chosen three); and they were composed and orchestrated, for a modest but luminous ensemble, over a long period, from 1840 to 1856. But the songs nonetheless have a commonality of spirit. They’re all about love. They’re also all indirect in expression: Berlioz consistently opts for suggestion rather than, as this afternoon’s soloist Janet Brown puts it, “coming right out and saying something.” Then, too, while the songs aren’t exactly “intellectual,” the emotion is always refracted through the mind—whether in memory or in anticipation.
Yet even within this restrained, allusive style, there is plenty of variety. The first song, Villanelle, describes two lovers picking wild strawberries in early spring. Each verse begins with a wonderful harmonic move—Janet thinks of how you feel when you “you’re sick and tired of winter and you suddenly see crocuses poking up out of the snow.” The second, Spectre de la rose, describes a young woman’s emotions through the haunting image of the ghost of the rose she wore to a ball the previous evening. As for the last selection, L’Ile inconnue (The Unknown Isle)—Janet finds a great deal of humor beneath the surface: “This woman is being seduced by promises of a great boat ride going to great lands. In the middle, she says, ‘Well, I’d really like to go to that land where love is constant and faithful’—and after that, the man’s voice kind of drops and the wind, as it were, goes out of his sails. The song drifts away as he loses interest.” She adds, “At least, that’s what I get from this song.” You, of course, may get something different—but in any case, Janet suggests that your experience will be enriched if you read the poems carefully before the concert begins. You can find them in a booklet insert.
Poulenc could be as poignantly suggestive as anyone—and as we heard in his 1932 Concerto for Two Pianos at the season opener, he could also be as cheeky. But his Concerto for Organ, Strings, and Timpani (1938) has a different ethos. Or does it? It was written in ominous times just as the Second World War was brewing, and Poulenc had apparently become more religious in the intervening half-dozen years. The resulting work is, on the surface at least, far more serious in its utterances. It begins, for instance, in baroque grandeur, with a section that, as this afternoon’s soloist Bradley Welch points out, seems a clear reference to Bach’s G Minor Fantasy and Fugue. But while many see that sobriety as the dominant mood, Bradley sees something else, something he’d call “cynical” (but without the negative connotations) or perhaps “sardonic,” something he associates with David Letterman’s style.
More specifically, Bradley sees the concerto as “a study in contrasts.” After that “dramatic” G Minor opening, we get “eerie, soft sections—and suddenly we’re in allegro sections with running 16th-notes and motor rhythms”—and then, just as suddenly, “we’re in glorious major keys, with lots of major seventh chords.” There are even parts that would not be out of place accompanying a silent film melodrama. Along the way, we not only hear “a lot of different textures, registrations, and colors”—but we also get tremendous variety in the way Poulenc “utilizes the interaction between the organ and the orchestra. Sometimes the organ is playing a single solo line, accompanied by the orchestra; sometimes the organ is playing in dialogue with the orchestra. Sometimes they are working together, sometimes they are striving against one another.” Yet for all the “quirkiness,” Bradley insists, there are also “moments where you feel you are holding your breath—as in the closing section, where after so much storminess, we get a very dreamy and blissful coda, about a minute’s worth of soft music over a low G pedal point. It is transcendent.”
That transcendence prepares us for the music after intermission—for it’s hard to imagine a more transcendent work than the Requiem by Gabriel Fauré (1845-1924). Like the Berlioz Nuits d’été, the Fauré Requiem had a long gestation period: begun in 1877, the full orchestra version we’re hearing today wasn’t completed until 1900. And like the Berlioz, it works by indirection. Colors are muted and slightly dark (violins have a lot less to do than violas); while there’s an important organ part, it’s subservient; and while for many, the soprano solo, “Pie Jesu,” is the heart of the piece, it makes its point through brevity and simplicity (Janet imagines a child singing it). In this restraint, the Fauré stands apart from the other great Latin Requiems of the 18th and 19th centuries. (Brahms’s German Requiem is a different sort of piece entirely—we’ll be hearing that on April 23). More specifically, in contrast to the Requiems by Mozart, Verdi, Dvořák, and Berlioz himself, there are, in Janet’s words, “no pleadings, no threats, no hell and damnation.” Rather, it’s a work that consoles us by reminding us that “everyone is embraced under the umbrella of God’s love and forgiveness.”
Peter J. Rabinowitz | prabinowitz@ExperienceSymphoria.org