Serenity was strikingly evident in Sunday night’s concert-opener, Debussy’s lyrical cantata La damoiselle élue (The Blessed Damozel). Scored for orchestra, mezzo-soprano, soprano and three-part female chorus, this evocative work sets Gabriel Rossetti’s narrative poem of 1850 (and translated into French by Gabriel Sarrazin) in which the chaste Damozel, waiting at the “gold bar of heaven”, yearns for the arrival of her earthly lover. The music’s sensuality provoked a few raised eyebrows at its first public performance in 1893, the audience no doubt taken aback by the notion of a Christian afterlife redolent of such human passion. Its musical language (a heady cocktail of Franck, Massenet and Wagner) was a perfect match for the poem’s imagery and both were magnificently recreated by David Hill and the London Symphony Orchestra.

David Hill © John Wood
David Hill
© John Wood

Amongst the many notable qualities of his account was the hushed opening prelude where Hill coaxed from his players some of the most tender playing I’ve heard in this rarely performed work. The prelude’s dynamic level was superbly controlled and the muted strings seemed to glow as if they themselves were heaven-bound. 60 meticulously prepared ladies from the London Symphony Chorus were superb, their diction and intonation faultless and, when required, their tone was suitably consoling and passionate. The icing on the cake was the sumptuous tones of the American soprano Nicole Cabell who found wonderfully expressive outlet in her role as the Damozel. If, on occasion, she was unable to project her lower range over the orchestra she was thrilling to watch and her pronunciation utterly convincing. Less rconvincing was Kelley O’Connor (another native American) whose swallowed vowels marred an otherwise sensitive narration.

With David Hill taking over at such short notice from an indisposed Donald Runnicles, it was perhaps inevitable that there would be a programme change. Fortunately, the all-French theme remained (as did the association with the French symbolists) with Fauré’s Pelléas et Mélisande Suite replacing the originally advertised La mer. What we missed in Debussy’s richly scored seascape we gained in the elegance, clarity and understated craftsmanship found in Fauré’s incidental music based on Maeterlinck’s stage tragedy. In the Suite’s four movements, Hill responded effortlessly to the work’s melodic contours and summoned just the right wistful evocation in the first movement and brought to the second a brightly-lit scene where the clarity of Fauré’s scoring is superb. In the well-known “Sicilienne” harp (Bryn Lewis) and flute (Gareth Davies) formed a winning partnership, and in the concluding “Death of Mélisande” Hill allowed no indulgence, urging the music forward always with an acute ear to instrumental balance.

Following the interval the orchestra, two soloists and a 100 strong chorus presented Duruflé’s Requiem and what a treat it was to hear this seldom–performed full orchestral version. Particularly rewarding amongst the added timbres were bass clarinet (Domine Jesu Christe), clarinet (Agnus Dei), bassoon and cor anglais (Lux Aeterna), and a percussion section comprising bass drum, cymbals, celesta and tam tam. Mezzo-soprano Kelley O’Connor, supported by a pillow of divided cellos and violas, gave a moving account of the Pie Jesu, her singing now more clearly enunciated. Baritone soloist Duncan Rock was equally impassioned, and while one might have wished for more colour in this young voice, he was impressively dramatic in the Libera me.

It is the chorus which make the strongest contribution to the work’s emotional impact and in this aspect they were gloriously responsive to Hill’s energising and passionate gestures. Their admirable diction produced “pistol crack” consonants and when at full throttle, as in the Kyrie and Libera me they sang with unstinting commitment. Both the Sanctus and Lux aeterna demonstrated their fine sense of ensemble and the soprano line was well shaped for In Paradisum. This final movement, Duruflé’s ecstatic vision of the afterlife, was stunning in its quiet stillness and formed a fitting close to a concert that had begun in a similar mood of rapt serenity.

Having taken on this programme with just twenty-four hours notice Hill might also have felt some sense of serenity in those closing bars. If he did then it was richly deserved and he must be congratulated for the quality of these fine performances.

****1