‘Résonances’: Chamber Choir Ireland at St Ann’s Dawson Street, on 12 October 2019
Chamber Choir Ireland opens its 2019 autumn/winter series with ‘Résonances’, a programme spanning a century of French art music and nearly a millennium of poetry. The plat du jour? A mixture of heavy hitters from the tail end of French romanticism to the dawn of surrealism, including Satie, Debussy, Boulanger, Ravel, Fauré, and Poulenc. Dishy. And within the opening bars of Poulenc’s Exulate, you get to see kaleidoscopic artistry refracted through the symbiotic relationship between choir and first-time collaborator, Swedish-born conductor Sofi Jeannin.
Jeannin concatenates items of the programme together with anecdotes and historical observations, inviting the audience into her world to let us understand the enthusiasm she embodies in performance. We feel it, too, in Daniel-Lesur’s Le Cantique des Cantiques after the choir regroups as a consort of twelve singers to sing one of the ‘crown jewels’ of the French repertoire. It dazzles with dramatic contrasts between humming and soloists, saturates the sonic spectrum at the final chord of the fourth movement.
Debussy’s sole a cappella work, Trois Chansons on poems by Charles d’Orléans, is well executed, and its dramatic effect makes slight issues with blend nearly imperceptible blemishes on an otherwise rich Art Nouveau canvas.
Clever programming sees the choir share the stage (or the altar) with pianist Alexander Bernstein who double jobs as soloist in works by Satie, Bonis and Ravel and as accompanist in those by Boulanger and Fauré. Up to Bernstein’s first solo piece, the choral works have been a capella, and it is rare for the piano to remind the choir of its starting pitch. The instrument only dominates when the choir vacates to either side, not unlike curtains opening at the theatre, to reveal the instrument in centre-stage position.
Bernstein’s keyboard technique sparkles throughout Bonis’s Melisande setting us up for the combination of piano and choir in Boulanger’s La Source. The statuesque audience before the final chord is a testament to the effectiveness of their eventual coming together.
Bernstein’s form also shines through in Satie’s Valse-Ballet and Ravel’s ‘Toccata’ from Le Tombeau de Couperin, but suffers from the proximity of the piano to the angled apse walls that cause odd sound reflections to make an energetic performance somewhat lacking in clarity.
Jeannin reminds us of the profound sensitivity and depth shared between Satie and Poulenc—useful as the printed programme contains only texts, translations and biographies—and these epithets might also be extended to the conductor herself whose sensitivity to the importance of the text shines through in the second of Poulenc’s works, three movements from Sept Chansons on poems by Guillaume Apollinaire and Paul Éluard.
Closing out is Fauré’s Madrigal, and sustained applause rewards the audience with an encore of his Cantique de Jean Racine. Bernstein’s sensitivity is a particular highlight in the accompaniments of these works, and is a fitting match to the sensitivity of Jeannin’s conducting and the depth of expression of the choir. Through the programme’s twists and turns the choir feeds on Jeannin’s energy, and Jeannin responds in kind—a true artistic collaboration.
Francis Poulenc Exultate Deo
Pierre Villette Hymne à la Vierge
Jean-Yves Daniel-Lesur Le Cantique des Cantiques
Mel Bonis Melisande (solo piano)
Claude Debussy Trois Chansons de Charles d’Orléans
Lili Boulanger La Source
Eric Satie Valse-Ballet (solo piano)
Francis Poulenc Sept Chansons
- ‘La blanche neige’
- ‘À peine défigurée’
Maurice Ravel ‘Toccata’ from Le Tombeau de Couperin (solo piano)
Gabriel Fauré Madrigal
Gabriel Fauré Cantique de Jean Racine (encore)
Sofi Jeannin (conductor)
Alexander Bernstein (piano)
Chamber Choir Ireland