For his all-French program with the Krakow Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus, conductor Jean-Luc Tingaud chose two important but rarely-heard works: the complete symphonic poem Psyché by Cesar Franck and Psalm XLVII by Florent Schmitt. The double bill made for an evening of contrasts.

Jean-Luc Tingaud © Jean-Baptiste Millot
Jean-Luc Tingaud
© Jean-Baptiste Millot

Taking up the entire first half of the program, Psyché, dating from 1888, is an extended symphonic picture consisting of three parts and eight scenes – three of them with chorus. The music tells the tale of Psyché (symbolizing the human soul) and her love for Eros, the god of love. From the very first notes, one could tell that this score was created at the same time as the composer's Symphony in D minor, with "frankly Franckian" passages that can't be associated with any other composer.

Tingaud is graceful and elegant on the podium, expressive without any histrionics. In the opening part (“Psyché Asleep”, “Psyché carried off by Zephyrs”), he coaxed beautifully sustained sounds from the strings, with chirping double-reed woodwinds providing splashes of color.

Part II began with a glowing portrayal of Eros' garden, at which point the chorus entered as "secret voices" announcing the pending arrival of Psyché's "invisible husband". It was a spellbinding moment that brought tears to my eyes. Then came the sweeping sensuality of the “Psyché and Eros” movement and its portrayal of passionate love. If one were curious to know if Franck could be capable of writing such music, here's your answer... and Tingaud spared nothing in bringing its emotional content to the fore. The cello ensemble work was particularly arresting in this section.

In Part III, we encountered Psyché's distress after breaking her vow never to look upon Eros' face. Solo oboe gave plaintive voice to Psyché's plight while the chorus offered consoling words. In the final scene, Eros pardons Psyché, the orchestra portraying the ecstasy of the reunited lovers in an apotheosis that was majestic and exhilarating. Several of the prominent themes and musical elements came together to bring the music to an immensely satisfying conclusion. Not only were Tingaud and the Krakow musicians idiomatic and nuanced in this most interesting of Franck compositions, the technical execution was near-flawless.

Following intermission, Florent Schmitt's Psalm XLVII provided dramatic contrast. Dating from 1904 – barely 15 years after Psyché – it is quite different: a rich oil painting instead of watercolor pastels. When the piece was premiered in 1906, Schmitt was declared by critics to be "The New Berlioz" and it's easy to understand why.

The 47th Psalm ("O clap your hands, all ye people!") is hardly one of subtleties (and it's triumphalist as well). Hearing this music reminds us how seldom the Jewish people were on the winning side of events in the Bible, and Schmitt’s powerful score brilliantly conveys this sense of excitement. The massive forces called for in the score – large orchestra, organ, double chorus and soprano soloist – are overwhelming in their impact in the opening dance of savage joy (in 5/4 time). Throughout the first section, the Krakow orchestral players delivered razor-sharp entries with forceful brass and percussion accents. The musical motifs tossed back and forth between orchestra and chorus only added to the visceral excitement.

© Jon Yamamoto
© Jon Yamamoto
The atmosphere changed in the middle portion, wherein a plaintive violin solo led to the entrance of soprano soloist Ewa Biegas presenting the Song of Songs ("He hath chosen in his inheritance the beauty of Jacob, whom he loved …”), joined in softly by the chorus. It's beautifully sensuous music that led to an ecstatic climax and it was stunningly realized by Biegas, whose dulcet, shimmering tones soared over the orchestra to spine-tingling effect. Absolutely magical.

An interlude for solo organ and harps segued to the final section of the work ("God is gone up with a shout"); an inexorable crescendo of eight repeated bars that surprises us to realize that Ravel's Boléro came along a quarter century after Schmitt had already employed a similar kind of musical treatment to equally thrilling effect. The Krakow performance ended in a blaze of glory as the orchestra pounded out the dancing rhythms of the triumphant Jewish throngs. It's one of the most exciting endings in all of classical music, and to hear it live was pulse-quickening.

To state that Tingaud successfully brought out all of the raw power inherent in Psalm 47 would be an understatement. Clearly, he believes in this music, exhorting the chorus and orchestra to ever-greater heights as the piece progressed. It was a true “sonic experience” – and it provided a thrilling ending to a most memorable concert.