The Oriana Consort performs music from France

Oriana Consort

Walter Chapin, conductor

Harvard-Epworth United Methodist Church

April 11, 2010

Of the languages that are most frequently performed in the Western canon (Latin, Italian, French, German and sometimes Russian and Spanish), French is most often eschewed, most usually because of the difficulty in its diction. At least in English speaking countries, it seems there are as many schools of pronunciation as there are people willing to subscribe to them. And this is in modern French; how many different ways to pronounce Medieval French? franco-Latin? Least of all to mention the difficulties of twentieth-century French music which, after the daring harmonic advancements of Claude Debussy and Francis Poulenc, became some unholy amalgam of jazz imbued with traditional choral forms.

All this is to say that Oriana Consort’s Sunday afternoon performance was more than daring in its repertoire and choice of performance practice. The art of French chanson was alive and well; Debussy’s Trois Chansons de Charles d’Orleans was paired with Ravel’s Trois Chansons pour choeur mixte. The two fared well in the ensemble’s hands. Debussy’s work, in particular presents significant challenges in its harrowing partsong. Although tuning was bit of an issue, the ensemble is to be commended in its interpretation and presentation of the three difficult works. Laura Betinis, the alto soloist of the second song in the work provided a particularly rich tone with a flexible line, and small ensemble work in the final song provided dramatic splashes of color to a stirring portrait of winter.

The Debussy songs were in sharp contrast to the comparatively rustic Ravel songs. Whereas Debussy’s work was cosmopolitan, Ravel’s were somehow more intimate in Oriana’s performance. Nicolette, first the in the series, was imbued with crisp diction and expressive choral colors, painting a subtly nuanced retelling of the ballade. Trois beaux oiseaux du Paradis and Ronde were equally well-conceived; the former, a well-balanced nostalgiac, the latter, a vibrant, brightly colored warning to little children about the monsters that dwell in the forest.

Motets by Francis Poulenc and Maurice Duruflé provided a stunning counterpoint to the secular chanson. Whereas Debussy and Ravel’s works reveled in the vibrancy of text-painting and part-writing, Duruflé’s work seemed to hail from an older universe, one replete with plainsong and Gregorian chant. This is not to say that this music is any less difficult or was performed with any less detail. A strong bass line underpinned much of the intricate polyphony in the top voices. Although the newest of all the pieces on Sunday’s concert, Duruflé’s work is written with a much older conception than any of the others. His four Motets sur des thèmes grégoriens were presented in this light, while maintaining a flexible, moving line. Francis Poulenc’s works are almost diametrically opposed (rich harmonies fall in stark contrast with Duruflé’s spare chant-like lines); much can also be said about those works. Two works from the Quatre motets pour un temps de pénitence (Tristis est anima mea and Vinea mea electa) and one from Quatre prières de Saint François d’Assise (Seigneur, je vous en prie) were presented in a french-pronunciation of Latin, whose diction shaped melodic lines more comfortably in Poulenc’s works. A harmonically challenging set of works, Oriana shaped Poulenc’s lines with resounding authority. All three pieces were intimately constructed to suit Poulenc’s vision of the pieces. Small-ensemble work in Seigneur, je vous en prie, painted the work in resounding, deeply satisfying sound, while whole ensemble work in Tristis est anima mea and Vinea mea electa presented a solid performance of the work, technically well-advised in Poulenc’s tone world.

The final great contrast of Sunday’s concert resided in the two masses. Brummel’s Requiem (abridged for the sake of programming) began the concert, launching the audience into a spare sixteenth century sound world that was riddled with rich contrast: the Introit, for example, showed Brummel’s facility in incorporating chant with complex polyphonic and homophonic music. Other movements, such as the Kyrie, experimented with harmonic shifts that wouldn’t be explored for more than three hundred years afterwards.

It was sad to see Brummel’s florid and intriguing work suffer for the sake of Fauré’s nineteenth century work. While Brummel’s work is supple and lively, Fauré’s work, in contrast, seemed less cohesive. Originally scored orchestra and choir, Sunday’s performance replaced the orchestra with organist Balint Karosi. Both ensemble and orchestra were well informed of Fauré’s gargantuan work. However, it is unclear how appropriate the orchestral timbres were represented in the stops of the Hutchings organ Harvard-Epworth church. Balance with the brass stops, combined with awkward page at crucial points in the movements often seemed ungainly in the choral context. However, significant work was evident in the ensemble work of the Requiem. In particular, Jennifer Webb’s well-rounded, rich sound provided a refreshingly new sound for the Pie Jesu movement (originally scored for boy-solo, but well suited for Webb’s more mature re-working). Balance between choir and soloist in the Libera me movement was well-constructed; baritone David Carder’s met with Oriana Consort’s significant choral forces on an even playing field, compromising neither soloist nor choir in technique.

A nuanced and inspired performance, the Oriana Consort’s performance Sunday afternoon summarized nearly five-hundred years of some of the more difficult music in the Western canon: a testament to the ensemble’s ability, discipline and dedication to their work. Ample program notes provided a detailed guide throughout the entire program. Although this was the final concert of Oriana’s season, the ensemble resumes its season in December 2010.