Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Poulenc/Berlioz Roundup

We're variously weighing in. JK and I called it pretty much the same way, though everybody liked the soloists better than I did.
  • Joshua Kosman, Chron, loved the performances and works and agrees me with about the craziness. Pleased to see that the adjective Beethovenian came to mind for both of us.
  • Lisa Hirsch, SFCV
  • John Marcher, A Beast in a Jungle. But isn't the Poulence pretty compact and understated compared to the Berlioz?
  • kalimac. I would not expect someone who thinks Mahler is a bad composer to like the Berlioz, no, I would not.
  • Axel Feldheim, NFFO, happy to have heard these pieces.
  • Richard Scheinin, Mercury-News, preferred the Poulenc.
  • SF Mike rhapsodizes, and who can blame him? I agree with every word.
  • Janos Gereben, SFCV Music News, bids the program a fond farewell.
Now, about the soloists. I loved Erin Wall the first time I heard her, but since then, she's not ringing my bell. For the Poulenc, the recording I have (Ozawa) features Kathleen Battle at her luminous, silvery best. I dunno, Wall seems a little generic to me for this music.

Paul Groves has seemed overparted and miscast in almost everything I've seen him in. He was lovely some years ago in Stravinsky's Le Rossignol (I looked up my review....), but sounded over his head in Iphegenie and again this week in the Berlioz, which really does call for a heroic French tenor. Honestly, every time I hear him I think it's a part Ben Heppner should be singing or should have sung.

What's next for him? Enee in Troyens? Oh, look: here's a press release from LOC. Not Enee, but Parsifal. I don't buy it for a second.


Anonymous said...

You should see what I once wrote about Berlioz' Requiem: "With its hollow-harmonied, unaccompanied brass chorales and the chorus barking out the text, it sounds more like an Ode to Stalin than anything else I know pre-dating the Soviet Union." Withal, I don't consider the Requiem totally worthless, so I was hoping for better from the Te Deum.

Actually I agree with you on one thing: the soloists were weak. Fortunately there wasn't much of them, and the chorus sounded fine as usual, although the words were unintelligible and the orchestra frequently drowned them out, in both works.

Lisa Hirsch said...

I need to pick up a recording of the Berlioz Requiem, since I love pretty much everything I know by him. Of his works, you'd be most likely to enjoy Nuits d'ete, which is small-scale and full of charm. Try Crespin or Graham.

From where I sat, the balances between chorus and orchestra were fine.

Anonymous said...

I'm so sorry to have missed the Te Deum. If I'd known about it long enough in advance, I probably could have worked out a trip north.

I've only ever heard it once, in a performance in Orange County that had everything possible wrong with it, starting with too few of everybody, as well as a conductor who was more or less at sea. So the piece is still on my bucket list.

Have you never heard the Requiem? That's not so hard to come by, even though it asks for even more than the Te Deum. Because of its extreme dynamic range, and its unique conception of sound in space, it's basically unrecordable. But that shouldn't stop you -- I have the Colin Davis from the 1970s, and can recommend it. It doesn't achieve the impossible, but I think it's still a good place to start until a live performance comes your way.

I've heard the Requiem live five times, and have never been entirely satisfied (although Salonen came pretty close once in Disney Hall, as did John Nelson in the SF Opera House before Davies was built). Even the better performances make one serious mistake: they spread the four brass choirs around the hall, to exaggerate the antiphonal effects (as if this were Gabrieli), and thereby make hash of some tricky rhythms in the Dies Irae. Berlioz's instructions are to put the brass at the four corners of the performing forces, not the corners of the hall. Still, I live in hope.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Damn, Rob - I should have alerted you. I haven't mentioned this program in a year or something, since the season was announced.

"Everything possible wrong" - sigh.

No, never heard the Requiem, will get the Davis. MTT might do well with the Requiem, although Dutoit's Te Deum was just dandy; he never let the excesses become too excessive. (Well, if you like the piece.)

Anonymous said...

I should mention another problem with every performance of the Requiem that I've heard (including the Davis recording). Berlioz's native choral culture was for STB (or SSTTBB) choirs, without a separate alto section. He changed to writing for SATB after his many travels in England and Germany in the 1840s, but that only happened in his works after 1850 (the Childhood of Christ, The Trojans, and Beatrice and Benedict).

So in most of his choral works, he is writing for a choir that is a third tenors. This is particularly true in the Requiem, where the tenors are relentlessly exposed in several sections (the Lacrymosa most of all). Needless to say, no modern performing chorus is set up that way. I am so used to hearing the tenors gasping and struggling in the Lacrymosa that it almost seems the character of the movement, but I'm sure that's not true.

I think the proper way to perform these pieces is to send all but the highest altos home and then to bring in the entire tenor section from another chorus. I've never heard that done. I once sang in a performance of The Damnation of Faust where a few of the lowest altos sang tenor and the rest were made to sing second soprano -- an unsatisfactory solution, as you can imagine, in both the weakened tenor color and the discomfort of the poor altos.

The Te Deum is also STB (actually STB/STB/SA). Did you notice any problems of this kind with the Symphony Chorus?