Supported by generous help from the Turnovsky Endowment Trust

Brilliant French programme with Anne Sophie von Otter and Wellington Orchestra at Town Hall

By , 18/11/2011

Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune (Debussy); Songs from Chants d’Auvergne (Canteloube); Symphonie fantastique (Berlioz)

Anne Sophie von Otter  with the Vector Wellington Orchestra under Marc Taddei

Town Hall

Friday 18 November, 7.30pm

A full Town Hall auditorium and a stage crowded with a great orchestra of some 85 players, put me in mind of the Town Hall concerts that an NZSO of 30 years ago could sell out.

An entirely French programme was the perfect response to the Wellington Orchestra’s encounter with the wonderful Swedish mezzo who has indeed cultivated a special gift in the language and music of France.

As Marc Taddei remarked, the programme included two works that were landmarks not just for French music but for the whole world of classical music. Debussy’s Faune is now widely considered to herald the dawn of modern music, perhaps of more importance than the adventures of Schoenberg into atonality and serialism. And 60 years earlier it was Berlioz’s Fantastic Symphony that pushed wide open the doors to Romanticism that Beethoven had unlocked.

Taddei opened Debussy’s enchanting work with the most discreet movements of his baton, preparing visually for Karen Batten’s ethereal, seductive flute sounds; and though such refinement characterized much of the playing by other instruments, particularly Matthew Ross’s solo violin, and Moira Hurst’s clarinet, the performance was not without more robust passages that spoke of the more earthy, physical quality of love described in Mallarmé’s poem. But its dream-like effects were sustained in an almost faultless canvas of sound.

Anne Sophie von Otter sang seven of the collection of songs from the region known as the Auvergne the name which is today given to one of France’s 22 regions, occupying the main part of the Massif Central. Canteloube was born in the département of Ardèche which lies on the southeast side of the region. I travelled through it 20 years ago on a train called the Le Cévenol (which I see has now become a ‘tourist’ journey), through Vichy and Clermont-Ferrand and south through winding, forested river gorges, through enchanting landscapes with a hundred tunnels and bridges and ancient villages.

Another composer who celebrated its music was Vincent d’Indy whose Symphony on a French Mountain Air or Symphonie Cévenole was also an early love of mine;  D’Indy had a summer residence in Ardèche.

Canteloube compiled five books of folk-songs totalling 32 altogether. I discovered them in the early 70s through the land-mark recording by Netania Davrath; it seems that Véronique Gens is the only later singer to have recorded them all.

Singing in the Auvergnat dialect – related to Provençal and Catalan, von Otter invested these idiosyncratic songs with the great variety of emotions and gestures that they evoke. She was discriminating however with things like vibrato and the affectations of ordinary classical performance; notes were prolonged for comic or sentimental effect; the fourth song, Lou boussu, plagued with switching rhythms and tempi, depicted a girl’s heartless rejection of a hunchback’s advances, with careless gusto.

There was a rare graciousness, almost grandeur, in the performance of Passo pel prat, the voice rising ecstatically, her body and arms swaying to the rhythm. Similar gestures served a comic purpose in the last song, Lou coucut.

The orchestral accompaniments were equally diverting, witty, rumbustious, here a squally clarinet, there rude blasts on horns, a sentimental cor anglais.  Conspicuous too were the piano forays of the piano – from the singer’s regular accompanist, Bengt Forsberg, that seemed to have a special flavour inspired by his intimate musical relationship.

The endless applause prompted an encore – by Benny Andersson (ABBA) – not too far removed in essence from the songs she’d just sung.

And yes: though these songs are quite enchanting, it was a pity not to have heard her, in addition, in some French art song – Debussy, Duparc, Fauré, Berlioz’s Nuits d’été…

The second half was devoted to the 50 minutes of the Symphonie Fantastique, which Taddei dedicated to the departing General Manager Diana Marsh. It opened with the Largo, breathed suspensefully by velvety strings, gaining speed till the main Allegro movement arrives, introducing the  Idée fixe which is, of course, much more than just a ‘principal theme’.

One noticed Taddei had dispensed with music stand and score, a step that meant far more than the fact of having the entire 230 pages (of my miniature score) by heart: it soon became clear that it was allowing him to attend, without his eyes distracted by the notes on the pages, to communicating with every player and creating a performance of sustained beauty at one end and utterly unbridled passion or ferocity at the other. Again it was possible to admire much instrumental playing, particularly cor anglais, horns, and the inflated numbers in certain areas: the two tubas, and two harps, the two timpanists on each set of drums (yet the timpani was often played with the utmost quiet).

One might have imagined that the orchestra had been inflated by many NZSO players; but in reality they were few. So it was possible to record admiration at the polish and integrity of the strings, and to admire the beauty and ensemble of the wind sections. The tubular bells under the balcony on the left produced a magic, remote sound with their Dies Irae, while the cornets lent a distinct anti-classical character to the music of the fourth and fifth movements.

The waltz movement, Un bal, went rather fast; I have always felt that this movement should suggest a phantasmagoric, dream ball rather than a Straussian one; something was lost. The first movement and the Scène aux champs were beautifully paced, a terrifying Marche au supplice. As for the Witches’ Sabbath I was overwhelmed by the frenzy that Taddei mustered from his totally engaged players who still had the capacity to double their speed across the final page even though Berlioz only marks it ‘animando un poco’. I’m sure he wouldn’t have minded.

If there was a price to pay in terms of precision and finesse for the sometimes almost reckless speeds and the intense emotion generated at many stages of this performance, it was entirely worth that price.

Perhaps for the first time, here was a performance that recalled for me the astonishment and excitement I felt when I first heard the work in my teens.

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