Saturday, May 12, 2012


Last Friday's concert was Poulenc and Mozart, the Gloria and Requiem respectively. The Mozart is always popping up one place or another, Mozart is like that, but sadly not Poulenc. The programme notes suggest the Gloria has had only one performance by the SSO and that was in 1979 which is hard to fathom or excuse. Anyway, I'm grateful for small mercies (now we're in the liturgical mood). This work, as they say, is very moi.

Exactly how I came by this work, and the world premier recording, way back when, I have no idea. It was probably for the more orgasmic Concerto for Organ that I bought my cherished vinyl (still with its outer cover, almost more cellophane than plastic) but it is the Gloria which I came to love.

The Gloria was commissioned by the Koussevitzky Foundation of the Library of Congress. Let's dwell here for a bit. Serge Koussevitzky (1874-1951) was music director on the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 1924 to 1949, and whereas that link (and who opens them?) behind the name leads you to more detail (although no mention of Poulenc and his Gloria), it is worth listing some things about this remarkable Russian born Jewish musician, composer, conductor, sponsor of fledgling artists and champion of contemporary music.

He played in the Bolshoi Theatre Orchestra having trained with the Moscow Philharmonia Society having received a scholarship having been baptised as Jews were then forbidden to live in Moscow.

He debuted as a conductor in Berlin in 1908 with Rachmaninoff playing his own second piano concerto.

He followed Pierre Monteux as chief conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and eventually became an American citizen.

His Concerts Koussevitzky in Paris presented among other things new works by Stravinsky, Prokofiev and Ravel.

He was involved if not entirely instrumental (I can't find out specifics) in establishing the Tanglewood Summer Festival and shaping the BSO into America's then premier orchestra.

He created the Koussevitzky Music Foundation in honour of his deceased second wife, and would later marry her niece, wife three.

He sponsored young talent, finding Alfred Cocozza who would change his name to Mario Lanza, and guiding the early careers of Leonard Bernstein and Sarah Caldwall. (She was to remain closely bonded with Boston, and opera).

He was involved in sponsoring or encouraging one way or another Ravel's Piano Concerto in G; Ravel's arrangement of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition; Prokofiev's 4th Symphony; Stravinsky's Symphony of Psalms; Peter Grimes; The Ballad of Baby Doe; Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra; Messiaen's Turangalila Symphony. And that's just for starters.

And in his memory the Foundation commissioned Poulenc's Gloria which premiered in Boston on January 20, 1961 with the European premiere in Paris on February 14 the same year. The first recording was made the following day with Poulenc supervising, with the Italian soprano Rosanna Carteri the soloist, and otherwise, very French.

Very Catholic though it undoubtably is, and reverent and adoring, there is a welcome lack of excessive chest beating guilt. There's no Kyrie (and therefore it is not a Mass per se) and though there is the appropriate 'miserere nobis' in the Domine deus, Agnus dei, it is, to me, a request for mercy infused with the certainty that forgiveness is a given, that the prayer is already received, with the ascending "suscipe", as steps climbed, becoming a wonderfully exotic swaying ascension to God. Rosanna Carteri is simply stunning. Perhaps contained by the great contemporaries Tebaldi and Callas, her career now looks restricted. It is a weighty voice, full of body and colour, and here considerable poignancy, and yet with a perfectly launched piercing top, with the cut of a sharp but never unpleasant edge. It's quite arresting, Startling actually. Poulence must have been well pleased.

David Zinman played it tightly, keeping the forces well balanced and the American soprano Jennifer Welch-Babidge in her debut here, made a strong impression. The 150 strong choir was again just fantastic, singing with haunting beauty, the diction crystal clear, with every word falling on every pair of ears. I suspect many if not most were hearing this live for the first time.

If anything I wished for a volume dial, just to crank it up a bit. And while I wouldn't have minded a bit more explosiveness in the declamations, a bit more jazzy swing and cut the some of the angular rhythms, the mystery and incense was all there.

Here is the soprano's second passage in the Domine Deus, Agnus dei, (with a lighter more silvery voice than Canteri) in a passage the record sleeve notes describes as 'a litany of beauty and humility impelled by a profound mysticism'.

Domine Deus, Agnus Dei                                    O Lord God, Lamb of God
Filius Patris, Rex coelestis,                                  Son of the Father, heavenly King,
Domine deus,                                                      O Lord God,
Qui tollis peccata mundi,                                    You take away the sins of the world,
misere nobis.                                                       have mercy on us.
Qui tollis peccata mundi,                                    You take away the sins of the world,
suscipe deprecationem nostram;                         receive our prayer.
Domine Deus, Agnus Dei                                   O Lord God, Lamb of God,
Filius Patre                                                         Son of the Father,
Qui tollis peccata mundi ...                                 You take away the sins of the world ...


Susan Scheid said...

Koussevitsky was quite the fellow, wasn't he? I very much enjoyed your history lesson about him here, connecting all to Poulenc's Gloria. I am surprised it's not played more often. Why is that, do you suppose? I've just put my CD (on the ipod) on to remind myself, and yup, it's beautiful, all right. I love your photo of the old vinyl cover, too.

David said...

I was going to say 'Koussevitzky was quite a chap' but I see Sue's more or less beaten me to it. Like Prokofiev, he straddled pre-revolutionary Russia, modish Paris in the 20s and the building of a great orchestral tradition in America. I love the story of his flight from the Bolsheviks, concealing Madame K's jewels in his double-bass case.

Poulenc's spirituality I can really believe in. I'd go so far as to say that the final scene from Dialogues of the Carmelites, the Salve Regina, is THE great operatic ending. And you know which other examples I'm thinking of...

wanderer said...

You two, what are you up to over there? Much jolliness I hope. And there are many hanging on your return Susan.

David, there are such holes in my knowledge, which I fear are turning into black holes with time and sucking what little I do know into them. To discover all that about Koussevitsky was one of the reasons why I blog - it makes me scratch deeper. I'd love to hear more of the Jewels in the case.

Rosenkavalier was the first to pop into my mind. I don't remember you speaking about Janacek lately, or much at all. Blame the black holes if I err. I wonder now about your thoughts on the end of Makropulos, or even Katya, and his wild anarchic Glagolitic Mass (think Charlie).

I'm desperate to see a live Carmelites. The last time was with Joan!

David said...

Well, that's about it on the 'Kousi' front - a Parisian anecdote, no more, no less.

I was thinking Wagner and of course the end of Twilight. But Janacek's the main man for great let's-make-sense-of-life apotheoses. Katya's end seems to me the odd one out - so horribly abrupt and pointless. But Osud, Vixen, Makropoulos, From the House of the Dead - such affirmation! Then there's Strauss, of course: not just Rosenkav but also Capriccio and - the one to play at my funeral- Daphne's transformation into a laurel (Lucia Popp and Haitink, please).

Susan Scheid said...

So, I'm glad , since returning from Wales, I thought to come back over here to see what has ensued since I wrote. I've now saved a copy of this post for later operatic reference. I'm not totally in the dark, for once, as I have heard From the House of the Dead, and of course Der Rosenkavalier . . . Meanwhile, wanderer, as you'll see if you wander over my way, your country woman Anne Boyd's piece was, for me, the hit of the night (among many fine pieces and gorgeous singing throughout). She definitely achieved, in As I Crossed A Bridge of Dreams, what she admonished her student to try for--though I will say I did not care for her teaching "technique." That poor scrap of a student. I hope she's made a success for herself. It's so, so hard.

wanderer said...

Believe me susan, i have been and seen, and loved, your report. But I've been putting out fires down here, and dash through my blog list, keeping up, but without saying hello and that's rude and I apologise. I will now make amends.

I can't be too hard on Anne Boyd the teacher. Although it did seem heartless, if she spoke the truth, and the girl learnt a lesson, a big girl in a big world, then the brief was achieved. That passion overrode niceness doesn't worry me. And she mad her a cup of tea!

Susan Scheid said...

I will omment "officially" over my way shortly, but right away: I love hearing from you, both here and there, though please know you are in no way ever rude in the least, and you mustn't ever feel responding Over There is a requirement. Life rushes past us all, always, with all those fires to put out (I hope you have succeeded, at least for the moment). You make some good points about Anne Boyd, as teacher--making the cup of tea is significant, full of caring. I just felt so sad to see the young woman tear up her piece, even if it was deemed insufficient in that moment.