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Seen and Heard Promenade Concert Review

Prom 22: Fauré,
Berlioz, Bizet: Anne Sofie von Otter (mezzo-soprano) / Les Musiciens du Louvre-Grenoble / Marc Minkowski (conductor). Royal Albert Hall, London. 29.7.2007 (ED)


If it was not for the highlighting of Shakespeare as a season theme this year and having an overdue Proms premiere of a work best known in more truncated form, I wonder what reasons could be found for programming excerpts from Fauré’s Shylock and almost the complete incidental music of Bizet’s L'Arlésienne?

The potential problem in performance is that they were written as incidental music to plays, so without the plot to carry each one along it becomes little more than a stand-alone sequence. Incidental music can hold its own, providing it is of sufficiently strong calibre; but by definition the music is intended to play a second fiddle role in proceedings. Whilst both Fauré and Bizet are evidently concerned with orchestral colour in their works, they produce tunes of momentary interest that are – with a couple of exceptions from Bizet – short lived in the memory.

Les Musiciens du Louvre-Grenoble under Marc Minkowski’s enthusiastic direction produced characterful readings of both scores. Even if there was little sense of anything ‘sporadically operatic’ in Fauré’s work, partly down to a rather uniform quality in the string sound, for much of the duration more was made of Bizet’s demands. The tale of rural love and intrigue mixed rustic charm in the overture before notable tenderness in an Act II melodrama scored for harp, side drum and piccolo accompanied by a wordless choral part. Act II’s closing scene was once again imposing and jolly by turns.  Act III, however, contains Bizet’s most famous music in the whole score. Despite being wholly rum-ti-tum in character the closing scene’s famous march dominates proceedings and ensured a rousing conclusion.

Les nuits d'été, often performed though it is, stood out for its integrity of composition in this concert. This performance was also the highlight of the evening. Marc Minkowski clearly relished the textures in Berlioz’s orchestration and urged them to be clearly heard, even if his tempos tended towards the slower side of what can sometimes be experienced.

Now in her early fifties, Anne Sophie von Otter brought a palpable amount of wisdom and life experience to bear in her singing of Theophile Gautier’s poems. In a cycle so concerned with hope briefly realised, loneliness, desolation only to end up with the enchantment of love von Otter’s tone shifted to suit each text as appropriate to the mood it conveyed. As much was achieved through careful word pointing as reliance on vocal beauty. Her voice might not float a high lying passage quite as easily as once it did and the area of vocal strength is in the mid-range rather than the extremes, but with self-knowledge von Otter skilfully circumnavigated any minor obstacles.

Orchestrally, everything was securely played, except perhaps the bass line of Villanelle, which could have used a little more projection. Minkowski’s broad tempo for Le spectre de la rose and the care for articulation of individual instrumental lines indicated a performance beyond the ordinary, which much like von Otter’s singing, left much suggested in its wake. The lament of Sur les lagunes brought a gradual decline to grief as orchestra and soloist combined to tell this tale of loss and its pain effectively. Absence brought a moment of hope yet it was quickly dashed by the moonlight of the ensuing cemetery scene, the latter stages of which were imbued with mysteriously rapt passion. Intoxication and exotic nuances flashed across the cycle’s final song, L’île inconnue, to beguile and uplift heart and spirit with every passing bar.


Evan Dickerson


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Contributors: Marc Bridle, 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, John Leeman, Sue Loder,Jean Martin, 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, Raymond Walker, John Warnaby, Hans-Theodor Wolhfahrt, Peter Grahame Woolf (Founder & Emeritus Editor)

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