Premières of full scale operas by major contemporary composers aren’t exactly two a penny, and when they do happen, it’s even rarer to get the opportunity to hear a sneak preview of the music a couple of days before. But that’s just what we had this afternoon: Pascal Dusapin’s Penthesilea, from the Trojan War tale of the Amazon queen who falls fatally in love with Achilles, premières at La Monnaie in Brussels on Tuesday, and Dusapin’s suite from the opera received its first French outing at the Philharmonie de Paris. It was also my first chance to hear music in this brand new hall.

© David Karlin
© David Karlin

Dusapin’s sound world explores the extremes. The suite starts with sparse harp notes over a gradually swelling background of low register instruments played with unusual bowing or blowing effects to give an atmosphere of eeriness and threat. Without ever becoming ugly, Dusapin takes your ear in directions you weren’t expecting, making use of a wide percussion section including a notable cimbalom and using many different tonal colours from each of the instruments. And when he decides to unleash the orchestra’s full power, the effect can be very intense indeed. By the music closes with the same clarion-like harp notes, you have been taken on a real journey.

Vocally, the suite takes parts from three of the opera’s characters (Penthesilea herself, her servant and the Priestess) and adapts them for a single soprano voice. Karen Vourc’h has a beautifully smooth voice, her phrasing is good, and she hits all the notes in the middle. As an abstract piece of singing, I enjoyed her performance thoroughly, but I was less convinced by the dramatic effect. Dusapin admits in the programme note that it was a challenge to combine three roles into one – more like four, in fact, since Penthesilea is suffering from seriously split personality as warrior queen and besotted lover – and Vourc’h wasn’t entirely successful at the frequent mood switches required. But the combination of a fine voice and Dusapin’s fascinating orchestration made this a memorable experience.

The Philharmonie has been having something of an orchestral binge this weekend showing off the talents of several of the French regional orchestras: this concert was given by the Orchestre National des Pays de la Loire. I overheard the odd comment along the lines of “not bad for a regional orchestra”: personally, I thought it was not bad for any orchestra, regional or otherwise. In particular, there were some exceptionally fine wind playing: some fine moments of horn playing, delightfully phrased and weighted flute solos, and I would single out Bernard Bonnet for some of the sweetest timbre I have ever heard from an oboe. Conductor Pascal Rophé has a straightforward, uncomplicated style on the podium, which the orchestra seem to follow with confidence.

The amuse-bouche for the evening was Debussy’s Printemps, a four hands piano piece written when he was 25 years old, rejected by the musical establishment who found it excessively impressionist, and revived and orchestrated under Debussy’s supervision a quarter of a century later. The music displays Debussy’s trademark ability to invoke a portrait of nature and carry you with it. The orchestration may be straightforward, but it’s effective: important snatches of melody are handed round various wind instruments in turn while gentle strings provide backing.

After the Dusapin, it was time for a reliable crowd-pleaser: Stravinsky’s suite from The Firebird. Although the version played here is the 1946 one, the original is very close to contemporary with the arrangement of Printemps, which makes it remarkable to realise quite how far Stravinsky pushed the boundaries of orchestral writing: the variety of colours, textures and rhythms feels far closer to Dusapin’s work of a century later. After a sprightly start, the performance in this concert became a little becalmed in the middle – a shade too much delicacy and insufficient movement for my taste – but this was overturned with a crash as the Orchestre des Pays de la Loire launched into the “Infernal Dance of King Kashchei”, with the woodwind glissandi leading into brass and percussion-filled tutti generating huge excitement. The richness of Stravinsky’s score was maintained through the ensuing “Berceuse” and the closing final hymn.

Finally, a word in praise of the hall: whatever one may think of its brutalist exterior, the hall itself is comfortable and easy on the eye, and the acoustic achieves the ideal mix of warmth and clarity that makes orchestral music a pleasure to listen to. I’ll be back.

****1