Audience concert review: 23 October 2013 (Poulenc & Prokofiev)

The Rest Is Noise: The Sacred and the Satirical
Richard Lane, 23 October 2013

Great to be back at Southbank Centre to experience more sounds from 'The Rest Is Noise' year-long celebration of all things musical in the 20th century. The festival seems to have reached its midpoint, as the music from Francis Poulenc and Serge Prokoviev was all composed around 1950 – but what a contrast in compositions were on show at Royal Festival Hall on 23 October.

Francis Poulenc and Serge Prokoviev were the composers of the evening, played by the LPO under the baton of its Principal Guest Conductor, Yannick Nézet-Séguin. The two composers met in Paris in the 1920s, the place to be at that time. Recall that Poulenc was a member of the then-fashionable 'Les Six' (I am not referring to the UK energy companies). Both were pianists, and according to the introducers of the concert, both enjoyed playing bridge together.

The evening began with Poulenc's Piano Concerto, illustrating the lighter side of the composer (it all became deeper and more sombre from him in the second half). The light, nimble fingers of Alexandre Tharaud were ideal for the composition. Initially I heard echoes of Rachmaninoff's Third Piano Concerto; thereafter, aside from a thoughtful and sombre middle movement, the piece conveyed fun, jauntiness, and a happy-go-lucky atmosphere, with light scoring for a lighter than usual orchestra (the empty seats were soon occupied for the Prokoviev symphony that followed).

I have always been curious about the life and works of Prokoviev, though I make no apologies in rating his contemporary, Shostakovich, as a superior composer. Never mind, Prokoviev's seventh and final symphony, composed in 1952, a year before the composer's death, made for interesting listening. A slow and expansive first movement, a bitter-sweet waltz, an elegiac slow movement (I took this to be the emotional heart of the work), and a spikey vivace finale with very characteristic Russian galloping rhythm (also often heard in Shostakovich's works). And then an intriguing final section, with echoes of the first movement and a ticking-clock sensation, with ambiguous harmony as the ticks alternated between major and minor. It reminded me of the closing notes of Benjamin Britten's violin concerto, which could not decide whether to end in a major or minor key.

What a change after the interval with Poulenc's Stabat mater. The text, used effectively through the ages by many composers (think of Pergolesi, Dvořák), is taken from a 13th-century hymn depicting the suffering of Mary around the time of Christ's crucifixion. Poulenc composed the work following the death of a close friend, the artist Christian Bérard. A 120-strong choir joined the LPO in this intense, brooding liturgical work. It was hard to believe that we were listening to the same composer who had created the light, dancing piano concerto at the beginning of the concert. Soprano Kate Royal, resplendent in purple dress, added dramatic intensity to four of the work's 12 short movements. As the orchestra and choir faded away, there was the briefest of reflective pauses before the enraptured audience burst free with their applause, perhaps released from the intense spell of the music. An utterly absorbing evening.

Richard Lane is a keen amateur musician and concert-goer, who is be sharing his year of The Rest Is Noise through blogs and podcasts.

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