Last night in Davies Symphony Hall, conductor Charles Dutoit led the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) and the SFS Symphony Chorus, prepared by Director Ragnar Bohlin, in the first program he prepared for his two-week visit. The results were more uneven that one would expect from Dutoit; but, for those who stuck with him after the intermission, the evening found its footing with what may be one of the most memorable performances of the season. That second half of the program consisted of a single work, Gabriel Fauré’s Opus 48 setting of selected portions from the Latin text of the Requiem Mass for the Dead.
The final version of this score was the result of extended effort. The initial version was composed between 1886 and 1887 and was first performed at a funeral service in the Church of La Madeleine in Paris in January of 1888. Fauré then extended the instrumental resources for the first concert performance in May of that same year. By 1893 Fauré had added two movements, one of which (“Libera me”) involved a reworking of a song for baritone and organ originally composed in 1877. The final version, as Opus 48 is now performed, was not presented until July of 1900.
While the liturgical intention of the Requiem text is to pray for the peace that comes with the eternal rest of death, musical settings, going all the way back to the days of plainchant, are best known for the “Dies irae” (day of wrath) depiction of the Last Judgment. The words are intimidatingly vivid, often to the point of being lurid; and even the sequence in the Liber Usualis shows signs of reveling in this spectacle. Spectacle was definitely the order of the day for nineteenth-century composers such as Hector Berlioz and Giuseppe Verdi.
Fauré, on the other hand, was more given to subtlety; and, as a result, he never included the “Dies irae” sequence in his Opus 48. This allows the message of peace and rest to assume its proper role as the dominant theme of the service. The music rarely raises its voice, so to speak, over the course of its roughly 40 minutes’ duration. There is, of course, the brief recollection of “Dies irae” in the “Libera me” text; but the most full-throated expression probably comes from the brief “Hosanna” expostulation in the “Sanctus.”
Nevertheless, there is considerable expressiveness in Fauré’s subdued quietude. This begins with his rethinking the string section as a single part for violin, and two parts each for the violas and the cellos. Indeed, some of his most stunning passages come when he drops the violins entirely, leaving the violas and cellos to sound a bit like a deep-voiced string quartet. The score also calls for four horns, two trumpets, and three trombones; but they are used very sparingly; just as the winds are used primarily for coloration. Vocally, the chorus is only in the usual four parts with two brief solo parts for baritone (Hanno Müller-Brachmann) and one for soprano (Susanna Phillips). Finally, there is a continuo (of sorts) provided by a full organ (Jonathan Dimmock) using a bare minimum of stop combinations.
Dutoit seemed very much at home in conducting such a low-key approach to sacred music. His technique involved bringing attention to the many nuances of rhetoric that Fauré had conceived for both his vocal and instrumental writing. As a result, while the “message” of the music was clearly one of peace and rest, Dutoit summoned edge-of-the-seat attentiveness from any listener willing to accept the premises of Fauré’s quest for modesty in expression. It would not be exaggeration to say that Dutoit appreciated the motive behind every note that Fauré set down on his score pages; and, through his direction of SFS, the SFS Chorus, and the two soloists, he did everything possible to share that appreciation with his audience.
Sadly, that attentiveness was less evident during the first half of the program. One problem may have been that the music was just not as respectful of the text as Fauré had tried to be. While there is no doubting the devoutness of Francis Poulenc’s practice of Catholicism, his 1960 setting of the Gloria portion of the Mass seems to show little concern for the significance of the words. Indeed, the boundaries between some of the movements are decidedly awkward; and the final movement almost comes across as a last-ditch (unsuccessful) effort to cram in the remaining words.
On the other hand, if Poulenc’s mind was elsewhere, it was probably in his instrumentation. If the vocal writing is highly repetitive and often unimaginative, Poulenc’s control of sonority through subtle shifts in how he combines his instrumental voices provided more than enough to engage the serious listener. The problem, however, is that the vocal writing is reduced to a background for this instrumental foreground. Fortunately, Phillips control of soft dynamics in her two solos made for just the right balance of sonorities against the instrumental textures; but, for most of their singing, the SFS Chorus gave the impression of being a bit lost in the overall logic of the music.
By contrast, we can probably assume that religious devotion had little, if anything, to do with Igor Stravinsky’s text choices for his “Symphony of Psalms.” Most likely he chose the Latin version because of the clean and open sounds of the vowels; and the words themselves were simply an armature upon which he could then sculpt the three movements of this “symphony.” However, those scare quotes were intended to suggest that the overall structure has little to do with symphonic form. The music is thus neither symphony nor musical setting of verses from the Book of Psalms. It is simply one of Stravinsky’s exercises in abstraction.
Nevertheless, when we appreciate how the middle movement is an ingeniously-structured double fugue (one fugue for instruments, the other for chorus), we can still appreciate that it is a fine piece of abstraction. Unfortunately, last night’s performance was never quite up to capturing just what Stravinsky was abstracting. The chorus sounded particularly disoriented in taking on the second fugue subject, and throughout all three movements engagement with the orchestra was never quite achieved. Thus, as had been the case with the Poulenc, one could appreciate Stravinsky’s command of his instrumental resources; but that command was so impressive that it reduced everything else to insignificance. It was not a good night for twentieth-century modernism.