Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Prom 44: City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Morlot @ Royal Albert Hall, London

15 August 2018

Royal Albert Hall

Royal Albert Hall (Photo: Andy Paradise/Royal Albert Hall)

Some performances are inspiring and uplifting, while others can be merely businesslike, and, sadly, Wednesday night’s all-French Prom contained more of the latter than the former – disappointing given a playbill of high-reputation artists.

Debussy’s 1894 Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune, brought to prominence by Nijinsky’s 1912 Ballets-Russes performances is a work that should suggest languorous sexuality. There was plenty of dynamic contrast, and Debussy’s orchestral colour, as always, summoned a sun-warmed forest clearing in dappled shade but, somehow, the piece remained earth-bound, with Ludovic Morlot’s tempi evoking more languor and less sexuality, as though the eponymous faun was snoozing after an over-generous déjeuner sur l’herbe.

Lili Boulanger’s psalm settings are among the grandest of her few compositions, and her scoring for Psalm 130, Du fond de l’abîme (‘De profundis’) is large – full late-romantic orchestra, organ, chorus and mezzo-soprano soloist. Her style is very much her own, and the harmonic language, although tonal and sitting on an axis somewhere between Berlioz and Poulenc, can be challenging, and never more so in this setting, which contains melodies that never quite resolve, plenty of unison choral singing, and vast, complex orchestral accretions in which the timbre shifts and re-forms to point up the sometimes-desolate supplication of the psalmist’s text.

On the whole, the forces gave a good performance; again, the dynamic was well-controlled, and orchestral colour shone (including an impressive exercise in close harmony from the high strings at the opening, a nicely balanced flute/cello duet, and an impressive pulling-away of the dynamic on ‘N’aspirent au matin’). Justina Gringytė’s mezzo voice is warm and lustrous throughout her range, such that the even the higher, louder portions of her solo work kept their silky quality. The CBSO chorus worked well with this rarely performed piece, maintaining a solid presence throughout. It was, however, clearly a work that was unfamiliar to them, and although all the notes were there, and the expression markings observed, somehow they did not inhabit it, and the almost-imperceptible microsecond delay in some of the trickier, more angular phrases contrived to accent this unfamiliarity, and to leave the listener slightly unsatisfied.

Debussy’s Nocturnes received a nuanced performance, and here, Morlot interpreted both tempo and dynamic to great effect. The string playing at the opening of ‘Nuages’ was perfect: steely yet warm, an exact conjuration of the clouds of the title. The fleeting scraps of melody (a quiet trumpet over insistent pizzicato strings, for example) and bursts of busyness (muted horns followed by big trombones and timps) from sections of the orchestra portrayed well the swaying carnival-party atmosphere of ‘Fêtes’. In ‘Sirènes’ Morlot’s tempo changes were most evident, painting the splash and tug of the sea. The orchestra was joined by the women of the CBSO Youth Chorus for this movement, and their youthful voices delivered well the icy calls of the mythical seductresses.

Little can be said about a performance of Bolero. Given its minimalist, repetitive nature and constant tempo (set by the side-drum), it almost doesn’t need a conductor – merely for the instruments to obey Ravel’s directions. And the CBSO turned in an out-of-the-book account to enthusiastic audience acclaim.

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Prom 44: City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Morlot @ Royal Albert Hall, London