Hall One, Kings Place
Berio – Sequenza III, for soprano
Berio – Petite Suite*
Poulenc – La voix humaine
Claire Booth (soprano)
Christopher Glynn (piano)
Alasdair Beatson (piano)*
Netia Jones (director/video)
On the face of it, Berio and Poulenc do not have that much in common; they probably do not beneath the surface either. However, the programming here made sense in at least a couple of ways – apart, that is, from proving a showcase for the talents and versatility of the ever-impressive Claire Booth. Berio’s early (1947) Petite Suite, the piano interlude between his Sequenza III and Poulenc’s La voix humaine, proved a neo-classical surprise, its melodies and harmonies not so very far removed from Poulenc’s, albeit without the indulgent naughtiness we know and cannot help but love. Debussy, above all Children’s Corner, is surely an influence, Stravinsky too. I cannot say that it is a work I should hasten to hear again: it is ‘interesting’ as juvenilia, but presents none of the challenges and rewards of the composer’s maturity. Nevertheless, Alasdair Beatson performed its five short movements with panache and without condescension. Booth remained on stage but at least had opportunity to rest her vocal chords.
The two principal works have something in common too. La voix humaine is of course a masterly Cocteau-Poulenc collaboration depicting a woman on the telephone, attempting to survive the end of her affair. (I saw a brilliant double-bill with Pierrot Lunaire in Leipzig a couple of years ago.) Sequenza III was written for Cathy Berberian in the wake of her divorce from the composer. Netia Jones’s video imagery helped bind the works loosely together, wisely without forcing the connection. The use of recorded and real-time pictures of Booth alternated with images of greater (patterned) and lesser (1950s cityscape) abstraction. I was not sure what it meant, or indeed what it added, but it did no harm.
The Berio Sequenza is a gestural piece par excellence, a true tour de force of extended vocal technique. But there remains an almost extravagant vocalism, affectionate towards tradition, at its heart, which Booth ensured that we heard. I ought not to exaggerate; this is not the Verdian rapprochement of La vera storia, but nor is Berio’s exuberance solely of a militant avant-gardist variety either. Berio described the work as a ‘three-part invention’ of ‘text, gesture, and expression’: again, this was precisely what we heard. Only a highly-accomplished artist should even consider performing so technically and expressively demanding a work. Booth passed the test with flying colours: a coloratura display of objects found and transformed.
For La voix humaine, she was joined by pianist, Christopher Glynn. I had never heard the work with piano before; there is loss, but there is perhaps also neo-classical, Stravinskian gain too. The instrument’s relative coolness imparts a different but not entirely inappropriate quality to the work, and there could be no gainsaying Glynn’s surety of navigation when it came to the score’s twists and turns, gestural in a gentler way, no doubt, than Berio’s but nevertheless deeply felt. Those ominous Stravinksian ostinati so powerfully present in the Dialogues des Carmelites once again provide structural foundation, as Glynn proved so clearly. I should have imagined the loss from translation into English to have been greater, but in practice, the conversational quality – however much one might have hankered after the delivery of the inimitable Denise Duval – worked well. I was not sure, though, why a few passages remained in French. Just when I thought I had worked out the reasoning, my logic was found wanting. That was a bit odd: all or nothing would have been preferable. At any rate, Booth powerfully conveyed the delusion and depression, to neither of which Poulenc was a stranger. She elicited pity, knowing recognition, and black humour, even though Poulenc’s wish that the music be ‘bathed in sensuality’ was never quite fulfilled. The counterpoint between failures of the telephonic and nervous varieties was at any rate abundantly clear.