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At Saint-Denis, chorus provides “beautiful spark”

Basilique de Saint-Denis
06/22/2004 -  
Beethoven: Symphony No. 9 in D Minor, Opus 125 "Choral"
Orchestre National de Lille; Jean-Claude Casadesus (conductor); Choeur de la Région Nord Pas-de-Calais, Eric Deltour (choir director); Maîtrise Boréale, Bernard Dewagtère (choir director); Alexandra Coku (soprano); Elodie Méchain (mezzo-soprano); Stig Andersen (tenor); Askar Abdrazakov (basse)

Now in its 35th year, the Festival de Saint-Denis boasts big names performing alongside up-and-coming talents and a healthy international reputation. With a varied program of old and new works, the festival can righteously make the claim, as director Jean-Pierre Le Pavec does in the foreword of the program, that it has its “head in the sky and roots in firm ground.” The month-long festival includes events that attract the music aficionado and the occasional concertgoer alike.

Tuesday night’s concert of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony was an appeal to this latter group – and not up to par with other performances this month from the likes of Maestros Gergiev, Chung, Nelson and Jurowski. Capping the “parcours Beethoven” concert series launched last week, nearly 1300 people packed into tiny wicker chairs in the Basilique de Saint-Denis, and most left content, humming the “Ode to Joy” theme under their breath. Chances are the radio listeners who tuned into the live broadcast on France Inter were less convinced: Removed from its stunning setting, the performance bordered on mediocre.

The Orchestre National de Lille, under the sometimes-ignored baton of Jean-Claude Casadesus, exhibited questionable tempos and imprecise playing in the opening movement. The soloists, including tenor Stig Andersen and bass Askar Abdrazaokov, vacillated between inaudible and pushed vibrato, while Élodie Méchain’s small but precise voice was outdone by Alexandra Coku’s floating (though occasionally uncontrolled) soprano line. Together, the singers performed with dignity but little blend.

Still, it must be remembered that Beethoven did not compose his final symphony with priority to the individual voice, and it was not surprising that each of the four singers struggled to be heard over, as Berlioz put it, the “treaty of alliance between chorus and orchestra.” Beethoven’s original title for the work, “Symphony with Final Chorus on Schiller's ‘Ode to Joy,’” hints at the primacy of the chorus part, whose haunting dissonance and dramatic dynamics were beautifully sung by the Choeur de la Région Nord Pas-de-Calais and La Maîtrise Boréale.

Having encountered Schiller’s poem, “An die Freude,” almost thirty years before the completion of the ninth symphony, Beethoven considered and rejected over 200 versions of the “Joy” theme alone and painstakingly constructed four movements in which, according to Debussy, “nothing is superfluous.” The fact that this concert was gooseflesh-producing is a testament to Beethoven’s hard-earned composition and less so to the instrumentalists and soloists on Tuesday’s Basilique stage, where it was left to the chorus to exhibit the true “schöner Götterfunken” in the composer’s tribute to Joy.

Alexandra Day



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