The fiftieth anniversary this year of the death of Poulenc has been heavily overshadowed by celebrations for the births of Verdi, Wagner and Britten. This opening concert in a series exploring the French repertoire at least provided a reappraisal of sorts.
The two works featured represented Poulenc’s two distinct musical periods, as well as the dual strands of his personality. Figure humaine, composed in 1943 during the German occupation of France, is a setting of eight poems by Poulenc’s friend, the Communist writer and Resistance worker Paul Eluard, for a cappella chorus. The surrealist texts express the strains of life under a repressive regime and the urge for liberation. Marc Minkowski’s sensitive direction elicited varying nuances of feeling, from the doom-laden to the final outburst of joy. The BBC Singers – whose predecessors, the BBC Chorus, premiered the work in 1945 – responded with sensitivity, commitment and impressively clear diction.
Dating from 1932, Poulenc’s Concerto for Two Pianos represents the other end of Poulenc’s musical spectrum – offhand, flippant and technically brilliant. Minkowski set the orchestra some distance back from the two pianos and employed a reduced string section, which further prevented the swamping of the soloists. David Kadouch and Guillaume Vincent perfectly complemented each other – Kadouch responding thoughtfully to Vincent’s high jinks, and both transformed the Mozartean parody of the central movement into something more earnest and affecting. The BBC SO, too, displayed an astonishing virtuosity, particularly the strings and percussion sections.
Ravel’s Mother Goose was advertised as the suite, but the audience was instead treated to the full-length ballet which Ravel prepared for a staged performance in 1911. This really was a treat. Minkowski started his conducting career with the French baroque repertoire, and this experience has clearly informed his interpretation of Ravel – who was, after all, musically descended from Rameau and the French classical tradition. Some of Minkowski’s tempi were a little on the slow side, but this had the advantage of allowing the multi-layered scoring to unfold and envelop the listener. Top notch playing from the orchestra enhanced the magical effects, particularly in the shimmering ‘Fairy Garden’.
An expanded orchestra arrived on stage for a resounding performance of Albert Roussel’s Symphony No. 3 in G minor. Completed a year before Poulenc’s double piano concerto, this work occupies very different territory. More in the late-Romantic tradition of César Franck and Vincent d’Indy, it is a muscular work, suffused with frenetic energy. Performances of Roussel’s four symphonies are rare in this country, which is a pity, as they have much to recommend them. Minkowski proved to be a persuasive ambassador for No. 3, driving forward the rhythmic first movement, and whipping up the woodwind into a jaunty, even frenzied, fugue at the centre of the otherwise expressive Adagio. Chabrier, and even Poulenc, may have been in Minkowski’s mind as he rounded off the symphony with the irrepressibly joyous scherzo and allegro finale.
Further details of Barbican concerts can be found at barbican.org.uk.