Culture & Conversation

French feast with a little Britten


Although this Orchestra symphonique de Montréal concert was billed as Karina Gauvin Sings Britten, the combination of Québécoise soprano and English composer was but a short, delicious course in a banquet otherwise dominated by French music of the Belle Époque. Appropriate then that Frenchman Michel Plasson was wielding the baton, in a concert of bittersweet poetry. 

Gauvin stepped out for the program’s second item, Les Illuminations, a 1940 Benjamin Britten song cycle that sets to music a selection of Arthur Rimbaud poems (which are essentially about the city’s vitality and vice). Looking elegant in a subtly draped, dove-grey gown, Gauvin immediately set the mood with the short opening section, comprising but one line, delivered with almost implosive force: “J’ai seul la clef de cette parade sauvage”. (I alone hold the key to this savage parade.) Her strong, confident voice, and capacity to express high drama through it, immediately had me thinking: Tosca! (Someone cast her in that dark, dramatic role now!)

Comprising nine sections, some only a minute or two in length, this cycle was an all-too-short showcase of Gauvin’s talent (though fortunately her interpretation of this Britten work is captured for posterity in a 2009 ATMA Classique recording with Les Violons du Roy). Except for some subtle facial expressions and hand gestures, and a playful stamp of the foot, this was a showcase of the voice as theatre: a cascade of notes down into sombre tones, some beautifully controlled harmonics and, most splendid of all, those sparkling top notes. An assured performance, well supported by the OSM (whose only fault was to slightly overwhelm her powerful voice occasionally).

The rest of the program was instrumental, and opened with Claude Debussy’s impressionistic Nocturnes (though only the first two of its three movements). Although Maestro Plasson’s 80 years were apparent as he ambled to the podium, and conducted with the most economic gestures, he set a surprisingly perky tempo here. The strings were luminous and the woodwind zesty.

Following the interval was Gabriel Fauré’s Pelléas et Mélisande suite, adapted from his incidental music for the tragic, romantic play of the same name. The program reached its zenith of French poeticism here, and though the orchestra was finely balanced and several principals shone, the sedate tempo made it all a little too poetic.

Finally, Ernest Chausson’s Symphony in B Flat Major, which was both majestic and passionate. Plasson created a compelling forward momentum, shot through with dynamic climaxes, despite almost always employing restrained gestures. So I’m mystified why the orchestra sometimes played so loud that the strings became a wall of sound, pierced by brass that was borderline uncomfortable. Was the orchestra overcompensating for the subtlety of Plasson’s conducting? Fortunately, they only occasionally turned it up to 11.

Overall, there was a great deal to like in this concert, which concluded with a charming encore: the Adagietto from Bizet’s L’Arlésienne suite. Like Fauré, Bizet crafted this suite from incidental music he composed for the play of the same name, so it was a perfect morsel to conclude the feast: very poetic, very Belle Époche, very French.

The Karina Gauvin Sings Britten concert is repeated on Sunday April 6. More information at

IMAGE: Michael Slobodian

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