Perhaps the biggest revelation of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and Charles Dutoit’s concert of Poulenc’s Gloria and Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé was how much Poulenc (and by extension most of 20th century French music) owes to Ravel. It is an admittedly rather obvious connection, but one that was made very clear indeed by programming these two pieces side by side.

Charles Dutoit © Chris Lee
Charles Dutoit
© Chris Lee

While they on the surface seem quite different – Daphnis et Chloé an intoxicating, swelling ocean of sound and Gloria a much more angular and at times eccentric piece, draped in purple harmonies – the similarities were at times startling. Programming the Gloria as the first piece perhaps made the connection less apparent, but I left the Royal Festival Hall noticing ever more Ravelian touches in Poulenc’s score.

Poulenc’s Gloria was commissioned by the Koussevitsky Foundation and premiered in 1961. It is in six movements, ranging from the fanfare-like to the deeply spiritual. The RPO especially excelled in the faster, more joyful movements; the brass shone in the opening fanfare, and the trombone solos introducing the second movement were nothing short of excellent. The chorus impressed with some very good diction, especially in the first movements, every word being discernible, not a small feat considering Poulenc’s occasionally eccentric setting of Latin. The singing was generally excellent, especially in the concluding Qui sedes, with some particularly fine singing from the men of the Royal Philharmonic Chorus.

Nicole Cabell © Devon Cass
Nicole Cabell
© Devon Cass

As far as diction went, Nicole Cabell left me wanting more. While her silvery, steel-edged soprano was very well suited for the piece, the text emerged as a flow of vowels with a few consonants thrown in for good measure. However, she did some quite lovely things, with a particularly ravishing contribution in the third movement, although I would have liked more sense of line overall. There was also a slight tendency for the slower movements to sag a little, especially the fifth movement Domine Deus, Agnus Dei and the final Amen. Yet the performance was a colourful one, filled both with joyful exuberance and a more resigned sense of spirituality.

When Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé opened at the Théâtre du Châtelet with Diaghilev’s Ballets russes company in 1912, it wasn’t much of a success; the ballet was unenthusiastically received and only had two performances. Perhaps the change of pace was too large for the Parisian audiences; the two previous seasons had seen the premieres of Stravinsky’s The Firebird and Petrushka, and Nijinski’s highly controversial ballet version of Debussy’s Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune which had premiered only ten days previously. The ballet is a rather chaste retelling of the Ancient Greek writer Longus’ romance with the same name; something quite different from Nijinsky’s explicit (for its day) Faune.

Yet it did not take long for Daphnis et Chloé to be recognized as one of Ravel’s orchestral masterpieces. The music is filled with lush string harmonies and intoxicating woodwind solos, especially the very prominent flute part. The RPO delivered a very impressive performance indeed, from the sensual, slowly wafting opening to the well-nigh free-for-all in the concluding “Danse générale”. The most impressive aspect of the performance was how Dutoit remained in control of the orchestra even at the loudest of volumes; those parts that can so often sound harsh and unpleasant always sounded measured and even elegant. Daphnis, as well as being a virtuoso piece for the whole orchestra, contains some of the most wonderful solo writing in the repertoire, especially for the woodwinds, although the horns (and occasionally the rest of the brass) do get their fair share. The many solos were wonderfully played by the RPO, especially the many flute and oboe solos.

Dutoit never seemed to forget the balletic nature of the score, and even though nobody was dancing onstage, it took little imagination to picture someone doing so. Dutoit seemingly saw the piece as consisting of isolated cells of activity, and sought to connect these bursts of excitement – great climaxes rising seamlessly from stretches of languid string melodies.

Daphnis et Chloé is most commonly heard as either one or two suites in the concert hall, the second suite being the most performed. While it does have its occasional longeurs, I hardly think there could have been a better argument for playing the whole ballet than Wednesday’s performance.