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Schmitt, Messiaen: BBC National Orchestra of Wales, BBC National Chorus of Wales, Christine Buffle (soprano), Roger Murano (piano), Jacques Tchamkerten (ondes martinot), conducted by Thierry Fischer, St. David’s Hall, Cardiff, 07.10.06 (GPu)



This was Thierry Fischer’s debut concert as Principal Conductor of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales – and what an ambitious, and largely successful debut, it was! Fischer, himself Swiss, already has a considerable reputation as a conductor of French music and in a pre-concert talk he confirmed that he intended to programme a series of works by a number of French composers. Fittingly, then, this debut concert consisted of works by two French composers. The first of them, Florent Schmitt, belonged to a group Fischer described as “put in the shadow” of the “autocratic” Debussy.

Scmitt’s Psaume XLVII, completed in 1904, is a work of some grandeur of conception, calling for a large chorus, organ, sizeable orchestra and an accomplished solo soprano. Stylistically it is a rather odd mix; there are some bold harmonies and adventurous orchestration which seem to look forward, and there is much that is stolidly late Romantic. This performance brought abundant fervour to the Psaume, but it achieved clarity of texture only rather inconsistently. There are problems of balance inherent in the use of such forces and both choir and soloist were sometimes in serious danger of being swamped by the orchestra. Certainly the text was very difficult to distinguish – but that, I suspect, may be as much the fault of the work as of the performers. Lesley Hadfield contributed an elegant violin solo and Christine Buffle had some fine moments when her full-toned soprano floated out over the considerable body of orchestral sound, even if there were other passages where she struggled to keep her head above water. The exultation of the closing pages was well done – it was perhaps only towards the end of the piece that everything began to come together. An interesting, if less than perfect, performance of a fascinating but flawed and conflicted work.

Substantial as it is, Psaume XLVII was effectively only a prelude to the very different grandeurs (and far greater intimacies) of Messiaen’s ceaselessly amazing Turangalîla Symphonie. It is remarkable to think that the Turangalîla was written as long ago as 1949. That it still sounds so contemporary, more than half a century later, is a testimony to how much it has shaped and influenced so much of the music written since. Fischer controlled a performance which never lost its clear sense of the work’s complex architecture, resisting the temptation to luxuriate overmuch in the work’s abundance of beautiful orchestral detail. In the September 2006 issue of the BBC Music Magazine, Fischer was the subject of the regular feature ‘Music that Changed Me’. The last of his six choices was the Turangalîla Symphonie, which he described as “full of untouchable sounds: it is naïve, but it obliges us to open our eyes and ears. It asks us ‘Is life really so serious?’ When I conduct it I just can’t wait for the next bar, it’s so fantastic, so exciting … It has a serious essence: if not now, when? When are you going to love? This is the piece that demands that you dive in”. Dive in he did, and invited us to follow him.

For Fischer this is clearly a work firmly grounded in real human passion. The beautiful slow string passages in the first ‘Chant d’amour’ (the second movement) were played quite ravishingly, full of yearning, thoroughly human nostalgia – to which only the ondes martinot gave a slightly unearthly edge. There was both power and a radiant tenderness to the interpretation of this movement. In the third movement (‘Turangalîla 1’), an exquisite opening set off to perfection the troubled music of pain and death which followed. In the second ‘Chant d’amour’ (fourth movement) there was some beautiful rapt playing in the middle sections, though the opening might perhaps have danced just a little more. The sixth movement, the ‘Jardin du sommeil d’amour’, is one of the most purely beautiful slow movements in the whole of modern orchestral music and it was lovingly played, with astonishing sustained tenderness and delicacy, in a quite memorable performance. When, in the eighth movement, ‘Développement de l’amour’, the ondes martinot is given a more prominent role in the musical argument, the subtlety and finesse of Jacques Tchamkerten’s playing was heard to its full effect. Elsewhere, Roger Murano was excellent in his contributions at the piano, both in terms of what he gave to the larger ensemble and to the quality of his work in his cadenzas. He was fiercely percussive where necessary, lyrical in other passages. The hushed calm of the penultimate movement (‘Turangalîla 3’) beautifully prepared the ground for the ecstatic serenity - for all its hard driven rhythms - of the final movement, a celebratory affirmation in which Fischer drew a shatteringly powerful climax from the orchestra.

The programme must have presented a real challenge to the members of BBC NOW. To a very great extant they rose triumphantly to the challenge. There may have been one or two moments of suspect intonation, just one or two moments of ragged ensemble (particularly in the Schmitt), but there was a great deal more to admire and enjoy, especially in the work of the strings. The orchestra – and Thierry Fischer – gave a seriously exciting performance of Messiaen’s seriously exciting score.

It remains to be seen whether Thierry Fischer will be able to take Cardiff’s not especially adventurous audience with him if he continues with such enterprising programming. I very much hope that he will, and that the audience will trust him and follow him – this was a debut full of promise, a debut to savour both for itself and in anticipation of what it might lead to.



Glyn Pursglove



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Contributors: Marc Bridle (North American Editor), Martin Anderson, Patrick Burnson, Frank Cadenhead, Colin Clarke, Paul Conway, Geoff Diggines, Sarah Dunlop, Evan Dickerson Melanie Eskenazi (London Editor) Robert J Farr, Abigail Frymann, Göran Forsling, Simon Hewitt-Jones, Bruce Hodges,Tim Hodgkinson, Martin Hoyle, Bernard Jacobson, Tristan Jakob-Hoff, Ben Killeen, Bill Kenny (Regional Editor), Ian Lace, Jean Martin, John Leeman, Neil McGowan, Bettina Mara, Robin Mitchell-Boyask, Simon Morgan, Aline Nassif, Anne Ozorio, Ian Pace, John Phillips, Jim Pritchard, John Quinn, Peter Quantrill, Alex Russell, Paul Serotsky, Harvey Steiman, Christopher Thomas, John Warnaby, Hans-Theodor Wolhfahrt, Peter Grahame Woolf (Founder & Emeritus Editor)