The early 1950s were marked by the world premières of Prokofiev’s Symphony no. 7 (1952), Poulenc’s Piano Concerto (1950) as well as his Stabat Mater (1951). The most recent offering of The Rest is Noise series at the Southbank Centre encouraged us to place these pieces not just in the 1950s, but also in a wider political and cultural context. Such encouragement came in the form of a spoken introduction, a suggestive programme note, and the distribution of an LPO-themed red-top newspaper. For all the timelines and juxtapositions, the point which really contextualised the programme for me was a passing comment from the lady sat next to me; she enrolled at Reading University to study music in 1952, and had been enjoying these pieces of music ever since.

Kate Royal © Esther Haase/EMI Classics
Kate Royal
© Esther Haase/EMI Classics

Much is made of Poulenc’s propensity to amuse, but what scholars call amusing is often better described as “light”. Poulenc’s piano concerto is fairly light, and it was treated as such by pianist Alexandre Tharaud. He handled the famous opening melody with a delicate athleticism, wherein the high notes were pinched above the reduced string section, and the middle register supported their Hollywood-sweet sentiment. Admittedly it would have been better to have heard all of Poulenc’s clever finger-work above an occasionally overzealous horn section, but on the whole Tharaud had the mood right, responding well to the very slight chromatic turns of the second movement with a focused phrasing which seemed to insist “this isn't Eric Coates”.

The third movement, in both F sharp major and F sharp minor, features the flicks and passing notes we would expect of Mozart, but of course it was presented as a kind of ironical novelty. Interjections from the heavy brass added a theatrical element to the finale, but the orchestra’s lively efforts weren’t able to lift the piece out of its strict rondo, or distract from its knowing smirk.

Just as immediate, but far more substantial was Prokofiev’s Symphony no. 7 which followed. Originally conceived as a piece for children before being matured for adults, the symphony has all the fully-formed melody and ingenious orchestration that the composer was and remains known for. Conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin stimulated an immense gear-shift in the LPO, instilling a serious tenacity which had rightly been absent in the Poulenc. Each of the many textural changes which underpin the structure of the first movement was dispatched with perfect timing and commitment. The heavy brass was given a lot to do, and in particular the tuba player made his presence felt with a series of weighty entries.

The symphony’s fourth and final movement is a culmination of the increasing diversity of the first three. Block-orchestration results in unusual combinations, with surprising solos. The ensemble worked well with these opportunities: for instance, a bassoon line contrasted fantastically with the material that both preceded and succeeded it. In this way the symphony is varied, and its performance here was accomplished.

Poulenc’s Stabat Mater is a different challenge altogether, and indeed it requires a much longer list of performers. The Stabat Mater is one of the most mournful and moving texts frequently set to music. Poulenc’s setting requires a large choir, a solo soprano, and an orchestra to be both powerful and sprightly. The writing takes in Bach-like chorale sections, an a capella dirge, and a number of sudden, deathly silences. Soloist Kate Royal and the London Philharmonic Choir clicked their way through the holy syllables with togetherness and clarity, and but for a few minor intonation issues in the Cujus Animam Gementem, the choir were faultless. The tenor’s exposed blue notes in Vidit Suum were particularly well managed as they highlighted an interesting harmonic corner as Jesus “dies in desolation as he gave up the spirit”. Eventually, and after much desolation, the text of the Stabat Mater exhausts itself, and similarly Poulenc’s music calms. The orchestra fittingly wound itself down and stilled its dynamism to reveal the Amens.

This concert covered a lot of emotional ground; from the irony and lightness of the Piano Concerto, to the promise of salvation through Christ’s suffering, via the artful intensity of Prokofiev, all of which was well organised and balanced by Nézet-Séguin. It may well be that the programme makes sense for contextual or historic reasons, but my own impression is that it showed the different things that music can be.