A Celebration of Poulenc - Usher Hall Series

Edinburgh Festival review
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Music: Stabat Mater: soloist Christine Brewer, soprano Organ Concerto: Gillian Weir, organistDialogues des Carmelites (excerpts): Rosemary Joshua, Blanche de la Force; Rebecca Bottone, Soeur Constance; Thomas Walker, Le Chevalier de la Force; Tove Dahlberg, Mere Marie; Liane Keegan, La Prieure; James Geer, L'Aumonier; Helene Racineux, Soeur Mathilde; Louise Collett, Mere Jeanne
Royal Scottish National Orchestra, guest leader Aude Perin Dureau, Stéphane Denève (Conductor); Edinburgh Festival Chorus, David Jones (Chorus Master )

Celebration is exactly the right term for this final classical concert of the
2007 Edinburgh International Festival.

Celebration of new Festival director Jonathan Mills for putting together such
an interesting, sucessful three-week programme from scratch in just five months.
Celebration at hearing the Usher Hall organ having a central role in a concert.
Celebration of the steadily increasing excellence of the RSNO and its dynamic
new music director. Celebration of the continuing worth of the Festival Chorus
and, of course, the numerous performers, soloists and so on who amazed, amused,
confused and entertained us throughout.

Not least, we must celebrate a stunning performance of such powerful works by
French composer Francis Poulenc.

Poulenc is something of conundrum among 20th century composers. A man of solitary
disposition who nevertheless depended on friends, his early works such as ballet
scores were often light though classic in form and brought him a reputation
as a clown. Late in life he showed deep religious feelings and these permeated
much of his finest work.

Stabat Mater, the concert's opening item, is one such piece. Written
in 1951 as a memorial to a dead friend (he thought a Requiem too formal) this
choral work is highly dramatic. The Edinburgh Festival Chorus added to the impact
with close attention to Poulenc's insistence that words must always be audible.
Christine Brewer had a comparatively slight part to play. Sitting calmly until
her first entrance around the halfway mark, her soaring soprano conveyed religious
fervour and left no doubt about Paradisi gloria (the glory of paradise) the
final words of the Latin text.

Gillian Weir is no stranger to Poulenc's Organ concerto, having played
it at the First Night of the Proms in 1964 while still a student. Her polished
performance of a rather melancholic work lacked a tad sonority at times (could
this be due to infrequent use of the organ?) but this did not dampen the overall

A superlative selection of excerpts from Poulenc's largest work, the 1957 opera
Dialogues des Carmelites closed the performance -- and the Usher Hall,
now out of use for upwards of a year for further much-needed refurbishment.

Stéphane Denève

Judging by conductor Stéphane Denève's stance as he acknowledged
prolonged applause, this was music close to his heart. He enthused the RSNO
to a near-perfect reading of a sensuous, lyric score and gently guided singers
and chorus.

The text is based on the execution of 16 Carmelite nuns in Paris, just 10 days
before the end of Robespierre's reign of terror in 1794, for refusing to obey
a secularisation order. They were beatified in 1906 by Pope Pius X.

Rosemary Joshua in the key role of Blanche was foremost in an evenly
matched group of nuns. Poulenc's graceful declamatory style peaked in depicting
Blanche's inner conflict over fear and family. Joshua's clarity of delivery
enhanced her emotion-charged final triumph through religious grace to face the
guillotine with her sisters.

Each nun had her own inner reason leading to martyrdom. The finale, with each
singer cut off in turn by the guillotine, (the clunk of the guillotine through
side of stage loudspeakers was a jarring sound effect) had the audience transfixed.

"When, or where, can I see the whole opera?" was frequent question
from many of the departing audience.

Concert Date: 1 September 2007

© Iain Gilmour 4 September 2007. First published on EdinburghGuide.com

Royal Scottish National Orchestra
© Peter Devlin