On Wednesday evening the BBC National Orchestra and Chorus of Wales, conducted by Adrian Partington, presented a programme of choral music by the two musical friends Poulenc and Britten. Interestingly, most of the works also originated from a narrow three-year period in the late 1930s (Poulenc was, at this stage, in his late 30s, Britten in his mid 20s), making the juxtaposition of the composers’ works all the more pertinent.

BBC National Orchestra and Chorus of Wales © Betina Skovbro
BBC National Orchestra and Chorus of Wales
© Betina Skovbro

Britten’s Building of the House commenced the concert, performed with a full sound from both choir and orchestra and seamless tonal dovetailing between the strings in the centre of the work. The composition is like a race to the final chord, the long notes of the choir somewhat representing the resolution behind the words of Psalm 127 around which the orchestra, for the most part, bustles and skits.

Poulenc’s Litanies à la Vierge Noire formed a strong contrast, its perfumed harmonies and colourful, gentle close dissonances realised most evocatively by their understated execution. What is more, there was a fine and tender moment in which the women’s voices are met with a counter-melody from the violas, beautifully played. A signature Poulenc ending, the work closed with a melancholy and somewhat eerie chord, undermined by an unwelcome note.

As with a number of Eric Satie’s piano works, the two Préludes and the famous third Gnossienne chosen by Poulenc are ripe for orchestration, given their often repetitive nature, colourful harmonies and absence of instrumental allusions (thus allowing for greater freedom). This is especially true of “Fête donnée par les Chevaliers Normands en l’honneur d’une jeune demoiselle”, which Poulenc indeed seems to have treated as an exercise in orchestration, passing the musical material around the orchestra and thus imparting various tonal mixtures and colours upon it. His arrangement of the third Gnossienne is equally creative and colourful, the swelling string offbeats create a sense of movement absent in the original piano version (regardless of tempo) and the blossoming string adoption of the melody was particularly evocative. Overall, Poulenc’s orchestrations seem – to me, at least – to breathe greater life into Satie’s original scores.

In a brief pre-interval interview, the conductor Adrian Partington described Poulenc’s Sécheresses as “very, very vivid”, and alluded to Salvador Dalí’s Burning Giraffe in order to frame the opening of the work and its strident opening. Indeed, the work felt excitingly unsettled, changing from one character, sentiment and colour, to another. Nevertheless, I could not help but feel that Poulenc’s sense of humour was always around the corner (conspicuously present in his orchestration in particular), as well as his natural melodious inclinations, which made itself felt throughout. The brief solos (sung by James Geidt and Olivia Gomez) were very well projected in the large acoustic setting, and overall the balance was excellent. The choir fell a little behind during the fourth song’s accelerando, though this was only a minor problem.

Following the interval and after a comically succinct performance of Poulenc’s three-minute 1920 Overture (after which the entire orchestra had to leave – Poulenc surely would have approved of this humorous staging), came Britten’s AMDG: seven songs for a cappella voices. I was, by this stage, somewhat concerned that Britten would be overshadowed by Poulenc, but I needn’t have worried, as the younger composer’s works were outstanding, both in terms of representation and in their performance. His AMDG, performed by sixteen unaccompanied voices, sounded faultless and riveting, with wonderful blending, a powerful and notably rich bass at the end of the first and last songs, and a thoroughly tight ensemble. The rhythmic gymnastics and rapid word settings in some of the movements (“God’s Grandeur”, for example) were articulately executed. This work is certainly a must-hear for any established Britten enthusiasts or for those completely new to his music – for me it instantly became the highlight of the concert and sent me away insisting to my friends that they seek out a recording.

The final work of the evening, Britten’s Ballad of Heroes, written for those who had fought in the Spanish civil war, began with a low funeral march. Not a dirge, but something more lyrical, poised and primed for movement. It is later developed over heart-rending harmonies, thus relieving the tension accumulated by the chorus, who sang almost entirely on single notes. The Recitative and Choral featured incredibly well-controlled muted trombones, producing an ominous timbral colour and when the choir finally entered as a cushion to Robin Tritschler’s recitative, it came like a ray of harmonic sunshine. Tritschler’s voice had a very steadfast and penetrating quality, though he occasionally became lost in the overall texture.