Edinburgh Festival: RSNO/Stéphane Denève

A Celebration of Poulenc

Usher Hall, 1 September 2007 4.5 stars

Christine Brewer

Under the baton of Stéphane Denève, the Edinburgh Festival Chorus and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra gave an enthusiastic celebration of three of Francis Poulenc's best works.

Starting the programme was his Stabat mater (1951). A memorial piece for Poulenc's friend, artist Christian Bérard, the work is a choral masterpiece constructed in twelve movements, each with a specific tempo and character marking.

What struck most about this performance was the way in which Denève moulded the character of each movement. With an expressive interpretation, Denève captured the intricacies of each movement as well as building up to the climactic conclusion of the piece. The Edinburgh Festival Chorus revealed their true expertise in the last movement, Quando Corpus. Repeating the words 'Paradisi Gloria' ('the glory of paradise'), solo soprano Christine Brewer reached a thrilling climax as the piece gave way to an expressive bold chorale concluding with a surprising dissonant ending.

Occasional difficulties in reaching the highest notes (in the fourth and tenth movements the soprano lines were thin) were compensated for by beautiful sotto voce singing. As five out of the twelve movements are without orchestral accompaniment, the chorus was able to shine in Poulenc's beautiful a cappella writing.

A veteran of the organ world, Dame Gillian Weir performed Poulenc's Organ Concerto - the very piece with which she made her début at the Royal Albert Hall on the First Night of the Proms in 1964 whilst still a student. Majestically lit up, the Usher Hall's prize organ was powerful, sensitive and a treat to hear.

At twenty minutes long, Poulenc's piece uses the full capacity of the entire instrument from its most subtle stops to its loudest pedals. It is a substantial concerto which requires stamina, passion and bags of concentration. Weir weaved her interpretation of the concerto in an authoritative performance, flaunting a sustained touch and excellent control of the bass pedals.

Not to be outdone, the players of the RSNO proved themselves as capable accompanists. In the opening movement, timpanist Martin Gibson created an intimate duet complementing the solo organ with his soloistic part.

But perhaps the most exciting piece in the programme was the last. A talented group of young singers from the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama joined established soloists in an exciting and tense collaboration of excepts from Poulenc's opera Dialogues de Carmélites.

The selections were well chosen and showed off the very best of the singers whilst not losing the thread of the original plot. A fast and furious opening began with an anxious ring of the bell announcing the arrival of an unknown man (Blanche's brother, Le Chevalier de la Force). Rebecca Bottone portrayed an anxious Soeur Constance singing high pitched, strained gestures, creating a tense atmosphere which set the tone for the rest of the performance.

Projecting well with a rich tone was tenor Thomas Walker (Le Chevalier) who really stole the show. The ensuing discussion with Blanche de la Force (Rosemary Joshua) in the third tableau was perhaps the most heart rending of the performance. Walker established Poulenc's recurring motif as different and more special each time.

For the final scene, professional soloists were joined by fourteen RSAMD singers playing the role of the Carmélite nuns. Beautifully dramatic, the chorus sang with the tone of death whilst facing the crush of the guillotine. Harsh harmonies and dissonant ostinatos filtered into a final tragic duet between Bottone and Joshua. With the inevitable bells chiming, Denève's passionate conducting cued the final morbid thud of the guillotine, ending the piece with a final atmospheric pianissimo pizzicato.

An excellent and enjoyable performance celebrating Poulenc's music in style.

By Mary Robb