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S & H International Concert Review

Fauré: Requiem, Franck: Psyché, Honegger: Symphony No. 2 San Francisco Symphony, Vladimir Ashkenazy, conductor. Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco, January 21, 2004 (HS)

 

It seems inconceivable that almost a half-century has passed since San Francisco Symphony audiences last heard the Fauré Requiem, one of the staples of classical music, especially with several conductors in its history who had a special flair for French music, including the current music director, Michael Tilson Thomas. The last time it was done here was 1956, with Enrique Jordá conducting. Guest conductor Vladimir Ashkenazy, aiming for refinement and clarity, gave the work a quiet dignity in a performance that underlined just how superb the Symphony Chorus can be.

Make no mistake, the choral writing is the main element that stirs the soul in Fauréís Requiem. The orchestral writing has an almost recessive nature and the two soloists play a smaller role than most orchestral requiem works require. It's the chorus that carries the musical narrative through most of the work, and the 100-some voices came through with singing of remarkable purity. When the tenors made their first entrance in the opening Introit et Kyrie, spinning out a long, chant-like line, the unanimity of pitch and timbre was gorgeous to behold. When the sopranos rose to a high C in the Agnus Dei, holding the exposed note pianissimo until the rest of the chorus settled in under them, the sound was so angelic I had to check to see if the soprano soloist was not surreptitiously supporting them.

But the most mesmerizing aspect of the chorus' work was in the sections that are reminiscent of Renaissance polyphony. The long-spinning tapestry of the Sanctus, for example, unfolded with clarity that a much smaller ensemble would envy. Their subtle phrasing throughout seemed to inspire the orchestra to its best work of the evening as well.

Ashkenazy's approach was simple and graceful. He didn't try to stretch phrases or make any big statements. His languid tempos opened up the words of the mass text, which the chorus delivered with excellent enunciation. Ashkenazy gave the work just enough propulsion to keep things moving smoothly. The result was a glow of calm that radiated through the entire performance.

Although both scheduled soloists were sidelined by illness, their replacements stepped in without missing much. Both were Adler Fellows in the San Francisco Opera's Merola program. Soprano Nicolle Foland floated the lovely top line of Pie Jesu, perhaps without quite the ravishing sound of Barbara Bonney, who had been scheduled to sing it, but with enough beauty of its own to evoke a satisfied smile. Brad Alexander employed his light but secure baritone to give his part, especially the declamations of the Hostias, enough power. Swedish baritone Gabriel Suovanen was to make his symphony debut in later performances.

The program opened with Franck's seldom-heard symphonic poem Psyché, a lushly harmonic work that today sounds a bit old-fashioned and could easily be mistaken as a score for a romantic film circa 1940. Ashkenazy let the erotically-charged sounds ooze unapologetically, keeping the tempo moving enough so that the piece did not overstay its welcome.

Honegger's slight Symphony No. 2, which debuted in 1940, filled out the first half in a pleasant if somewhat uninflected performance. It's a repetitive work, mostly for strings, that never seems to get revved up until the coda, a ho-hum pastiche of a Protestant hymn written by Honegger himself that introduces a trumpet in the final pages to double the hymn melody.

Fortunately, the Fauré followed and lifted the evening's spirits, in more ways than one.

Harvey Steiman

 

 

 


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