Thursday, 21 July 2016

Cubist Baroque Prom 7 Minkowski Poulenc Stravinsky Fauré

At Prom 7, Marc Minkowski conducted  the BBC Symphony Orchestra in a programme that demonstrated just how insular some British audiences can be. French style is different and needs to be understood on its own terms. Minkowski's punchy, vigorous approach underlines the importance of understanding the roots of idiom. Historically informed performance isn't about quaint instruments, it's about the spirit of music which refreshes itself in creative performance.  Minkowski, like so many conductors of his generation and before, learned from  baroque and early music that all music was once "new" and can still be new, performed with intelligence and with a sense of context.

Gabriel Fauré's Shylock Suite (1889) for example is about as true to Shakespeare as Ambroise Thomas's Hamlet or Berlioz's Roméo et Juliette.   Not "English" but endearing. Urbane and cosmopolitan, this Shylock's a man of the world, not a villain.   Minkowski began with the Entr'acte, with its striking brass fanfare from which emerges a seductive violin melody, introducing the Chanson and then the Madrigal, both lovely songs for tenor Julien Behr. We're in magical night-time Venice where troubadours serenade ladies in the moonlight. Dancing figures evoke starlight, or the play of light on water, and the Finale ends with a bright, cheerful flourish.

Minkowski describes Stravinsky's Pulchinella Suite (1922) as  "Bonsai....a miniature Rite of Spring" emphasizing its modernity. Though the ballet connects to baroque and commedia dell'arte memes, it was absolutely of its time, choreographed by Diaghilev, with designs by Picasso.  In an orchestral suite, dance imperatives aren't quite as central as in the ballet, but the idea of form and precision remains.  Minkowski gets articulate balance from the BBCSO. Fast flurries suggest movement and energy, violins are strummed like guitars, and bowed with angular zing.  "Gentle arrogance" says Minkowski on the BBC rebroadcast.  Listen to the trio where the bassoon blows sassy raspberries - this is Cubist baroque !  Stravinsky's neo-classicism was poised but very individual.  Yet again, the connection between period-inspired performance and modern music.

Minkowski made the point further by following Stravinsy Pulchinella with Francis Poulenc Stabat Mater (1950), inspired, in part by the Black Madonna of Rocamadour. How angular it is, worlds away from Michelangelo's Pietà in its Vatican splendour. It's much closer in spirit to the "primitivism" of the Fauves, Cubists and the avant garde of Poulenc's youth.  Ancient and modern, yet again. There are odd quirks, here, even the suggestion of medieval music  and the harsh terrain of the Languedoc.  As a meditation upon loss, Poulenc's Stabat Mater is unsentimental. Faith proves itself when it is tested, and in this lies its strength as Dialogues des Carmélites demonstrates. The tenderness of the quiet passages, and those in which the soprano (Julie Fuchs) sings. This tenderness offers a degree of solace, but also serves to underline the inevitable fate that lies ahead for all.  In the final moments of the Quando Corpus, though, the soprano's voice blazes upwards, joined by the choir and orchestra, reminding us that for the devout, there is hope.  Personally I'd prefer a craggier performance, which Minkowski could deliver well, but the refinement the BBC Singers and BBCSO produced was very moving.  Please see also my piece on Stravinsky's late works and musings on the nature of Faith.

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