It is a rare treat to have two separate song-cycles in the same concert, both from the less familiar category and both performed by the same singer. So all credit to Jennifer France, who bestrode the two halves of this London Philharmonic Orchestra concert with its principal conductor Edward Gardner in charge. 

Jennifer France and the London Philharmonic Orchestra
© London Philharmonic Orchestra

It took Henri Dutilleux twenty years after receiving the initial Berlin Philharmonic commission to complete his Correspondances, an indication of the care and fastidiousness he lavished on the score. It requires a large orchestra, including ten double basses and four additional percussion players, with accordion and tuba providing unusual sonorities in the brief orchestral interlude between the second and third songs. France was a bright, fresh-toned soprano, her voice powerful enough to ride the orchestral textures in Danse cosmique, and full of spleen too in the way she spat out “mille neuf cent soixante-quatorze” in the extract from Solzhenitsyn entitled À Slava et Galina, before ending with a deliciously floated “jusqu’au bout”. 

Mystical elements that were a lifelong fascination for Dutilleux are there in abundance in the text by Prithwindra Mukherjee which forms the Danse cosmique. Here, as the flames take hold and leap ever higher, the voice appropriately climbs into the highest register, and France’s soprano soared effortlessly above the stave. There is a similar pattern in the concluding De Vincent à Théo, drawn from the painter’s letter to his brother, where the soloist needs to ascend and levitate for “sentir les étoiles”. Even if France didn’t always sound idiomatically at home, with typically nasal inflections somewhat underplayed, she projected commandingly.

The prevailing mood of sadness in the Dutilleux, underlined by plaintive and autumnal evocations from the lower strings, extended to George Walker’s Lilacs, which had to wait many years for its New York premiere and eventual recognition as a piece of striking inspiration. It takes as its starting point Lincoln’s assassination and despite its markedly elegiac streak the four constituent sections set to Walt Whitman’s words are more operatic in scope, the brass in all its resplendent dark colours setting the scene for “O powerful western fallen star!” France was particularly impressive not only in negotiating the wide leaps in the tessitura but also in giving full voice to the moments of grief and outpouring of anguish, most notably in “O harsh surrounding cloud that will not free my soul”. 

Edward Gardner conducting the London Philharmonic Orchestra
© London Philharmonic Orchestra

If both song-cycles were largely about symbols, the two works that bookended them had a lot to do with gloom and doom. That is the conclusion one might have drawn on paper from a symphonic poem masquerading as a Fantasy Overture which is based on the tragic entwinement of Romeo and Juliet as well as a symphony in D minor which even in its Scherzo never leaves that mode. Gardner had a rather different view. His traversal of Tchaikovsky’s score took just eighteen minutes, avoiding any hint of a dirge, with plenty of momentum yet contrasting repose, but with the final grief-stricken section hurried along too much to do full justice to its tragic import. 

The recent death of his mother and eldest child weighed heavily on Dvořák’s mind when he started work on his Seventh Symphony. Not much mystery or restless heroic energy with surges and swells in Gardner’s hands. Instead, a very considered and symphonic treatment, complete with sensitive dynamic shadings and a neat dovetailing of individual lines. What stood out was the way the LPO responded with playing of the highest order: golden-toned strings, especially warm and supportive at the lower end, mellifluous woodwind and brass that never swamped the other textures.

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