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Runnicles leads French music with the NSO

Many thanks to Robert R. Reilly for this review from the Kennedy Center.

On Thursday evening, at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, visiting British conductor Donald Runnicles led the National Symphony Orchestra and the University of Maryland Concert Choir in performances of the music of Claude Debussy and Maurice Duruflé. It was a delectable French-flavored evening before a very sparse audience.

The first half of the concert was dedicated to Debussy. It may be helpful to recall its genesis. Erik Satie wrote, “I explained to Debussy that a Frenchman had to free himself from the Wagnerian adventure, which wasn’t the answer to our national aspirations. I also pointed out that I was in no way anti-Wagnerian, but that we should have a music of our own — if possible, without any sauerkraut.” Ingeniously, Satie suggested that the way out for French music was French painting. Why not look to “the means that Claude Monet, Cézanne, Toulouse-Lautrec, and others had made known? Why could we not transpose these means into music?” It is a measure of French musical genius that it was able to do so, as so brilliantly exemplified in the works of Debussy.

The concert began with four of Debussy’s piano Préludes, arranged for orchestra by English composer Colin Matthews. Matthews is no stranger to this kind of thing as he, along with his brother David, assisted Deryck Cooke in Cooke’s revised performing version of Gustav Mahler’s 10th Symphony. While I am an avid fan of David Matthews’ music, I cannot say the same for what little of Colin Matthews’ music I have heard. Regardless, his Debussy orchestrations reveal a very fine ear for color and are so well done that they sound completely natural to the music. But does it still sound like Debussy? Whether you think so or not makes the music nonetheless enjoyable, particularly in the NSO’s subtle, mellow, finely articulated performances.

In Debussy’s Three Nocturnes, his inspiration may not have been so much French painting, as it was the American paintings of James McNeill Whistler. In any case, Runnicles' finely shaded, diaphanous traversal of them also earned the same adjectives applied to the performances of the Préludes. Debussy’s Nuages (Clouds) floated by in an appropriately delicious, dreamy way, capturing “the slow motion of the clouds,” just as Fêtes was suitably bracing and festive. Orchestra and chorus were quite excellent in elucidating a broad range of dynamic range in Sirènes, from the lapping of the waves, to the first gentle and then strengthening wordless song of the Sirens.

Maurice Duruflé’s Requiem from 1947 originated in a suite of organ pieces based on plainsong from the Mass for the Dead. When he received a commission from Durand Publishers, he expanded them into the Requiem. The Requiem is listed as Op. 9, which would normally indicate an early work. In his lifetime, however, the meticulous Duruflé was to publish only a dozen works, mostly for organ. The Requiem is the chef d’oeuvre of his maturity. Add to plainchant the sensuous harmonies of Debussy and Ravel, which Duruflé had learned so well, and you have a mesmerizing combination, simultaneously modern and archaic. As Duruflé wrote, “In general, I have attempted to penetrate to the essence of Gregorian style and have tried to reconcile, as far as possible, the very flexible Gregorian rhythms as established by the Benedictines of Solesmes with the exigencies of modern notation.”

The Requiem opens very dreamily. Gentle orchestral undulations underlie the smoothly flowing plainchant of the Introit. Runnicles took this rather too briskly. The cushion of sound was invitingly there, but not the leisure to lie upon it. If we are dying, what’s the rush? I know Duruflé makes death relatively attractive but this displayed too much alacrity. There was certainly nothing imploring about the Kyrie, but Runnicles effectively conveyed its sense of celebration as in mercy received. In the Offertorium, one glimpses the inferno from which the soul has been saved. Dissonances depict the “punishments of hell,” but even the request for deliverance from them is almost triumphant. The vigor with which Runnicles approached this scene guaranteed an effective rescue from the “lion’s mouth.” Baritone Christian Bowers was fine at the Hostias et preces tibi, but not notably expressive.

The Sanctus slowly builds with cushioned strings to a triple-forte climax at “Hosanna in excelsis,” then subsides peacefully back into the rippling moto perpetuo with which it began. This was very well done. The Pie Jesu is a very poignant, gentle supplication, the point of repose at the heart of the work. It was delivered with both strength and nuance by mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke, with a fine supporting contribution from cellist David Hardy. The Agnus Dei restores a sense of motion and confidence that the “requiem sempiternam” has been granted. Lux Aeterna evokes what the eternal rest might be like, and In Paradisum represents the trip there, what Duruflé called “the ultimate answer of Faith to all the questions, by the flight of the soul to Paradise.”

In the first part of the Requiem’s performance, I was given to wonder if Runnicles simply considered it another exquisitely beautiful piece of music, much like the Debussy, because of what I detected as the missing ardency of faith, the core of what Duruflé was trying to express. That impression, along with my reservations concerning the pace that he was taking early on, completely vanished from the Lux Aeterna onwards.

Anyone with a taste for secular or religious Impressionism, should enjoy this French feast.

This program repeats tonight and tomorrow.

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