After achieving great renown for his work with French Baroque, Marc Minkowski has begun branching out into the romantic repertoire, particularly in the opera house. Tonight’s programme of highly narrative music drawn from theatre, ballet, and liturgy should have proved an ideal fit for Minkowski’s experience, but instead proved an underwhelming evening.

Marc Minkowski © Marco Borggreve
Marc Minkowski
© Marco Borggreve
Gabriel Fauré’s Shylock, receiving a rare outing as part of this year’s Shakespeare 400 celebrations, was drawn from incidental music written for a French adaptation of The Bard’s Merchant of Venice. As a result, it is no surprise that the concert suite feels rather fragmented, with two tenor solos followed by a string of rather interchangeable slow movements. Despite this, the work is vintage Fauré – most striking was the penultimate Nocturne, scored for strings alone and looking forward to Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande. Tenor Julien Behr impressed in his all-too-brief solos, singing with impeccable French style and carrying remarkably well through the hall.

Though also based in the theatre, Stravinsky’s Pulcinella is a decidedly different beast. In contrast to Fauré’s bucolic entr’actes, Stravinsky’s score is an orchestral showpiece in itself, its kaleidoscopic range of orchestral timbres a world away from the 18th-century Pergolesi pieces the work is based on. Minkowski’s speedy conducting did not serve the work particularly well, ultimately missing the neoclassical charm of the piece. This was particularly evident in the Tarantella, taken at such a speed that Stravinsky’s creative polyrhythms were completely muddied in the hall's acoustic, and the Gavotte, in which the bassoon and oboe scarcely sounded together for the entirety of their duet variation. The performance was somewhat redeemed by some truly virtuosic playing from the BBC Symphony Orchestra, particularly from the oboe, trombone, and double bass soloists.

Somewhat more satisfying was Poulenc’s Stabat mater, well known for its juxtaposition of austere polyphony with unabashed sensuality. Minkowski did wonders with the orchestra here, with a particularly luscious string section impressing in the erotically charged Sancta mater. This lushness was unfortunately not matched by the BBC Singers, who at 40 members seemed altogether too paltry for Poulenc’s score. The many treacherously high entrances tended towards the shrill rather than the ethereal, although it was certainly impressive how much sound they managed to make given the size of the group. Soprano Julie Fuchs demonstrated why she is the rising French lyric soprano of today – her clarity of diction and beautifully floated upper register give us hope that the future of French music is in good hands.