Let it never be said that French musical culture is reluctant when it comes to matters of the heart. Speaking in caricature, we incline to think of England as prudish and of Italy as choked-up and glottal-stopped with amorous emotion. The French, though, seem to be the official “culture of love," and--let’s be clear—French musical “impressionism” is largely about sex. All those satiny string breezes and quivering woodwind dewdrops mean little if we don’t imagine languid lovers at center stage. That’s what Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun is all about, of course, as is Daphnis and Chloe. But there is a reserve in both Debussy and Ravel which keeps the listener at an artistic remove. No one would accuse Debussy’s Jeux or Ravel’s Mother Goose of louche sensuality. Florent Schmitt, on the other hand, like the film noir composer he could have been, is happy to confront sensual moments in real time. Schmitt’s constantly shifting rhythms mirror the quick intensity of actual emotions and thoughts, the changeable “eclectic” quality of human happenings and the physical process of sex itself. There are moments in La Tragédie de Salomé where you might as well be listening to the headboard banging against the wall.
There's something about Buffalo that is forever and wonderfully 1940. The city admittedly went through a difficult patch in the last decades of the century, before emerging today prosperous and half the size it was. From an artistic perspective, though, this may not be all bad. Buffalo escaped most of the Pizza Hut architecture and cereal box skyscrapers which typically afflict American cities. Today, great colonnaded turn-of-the-century hotels, banks and office buildings still reflect iconic dignity and Dreiserian business energy upon a downtown more formal and stylistically unified than most. When it comes to its resident orchestra, the Buffalo Philharmonic similarly avoided an onslaught of concrete, continuing to perform in Kleinhans Music Hall, designed by the Saarinens (father Eliel and son Eero) in 1940 and declared a national landmark in 1989.
About a year ago Sarah Connolly, Andrew Davis and the BBC Symphony brought us rich rolling Sea Pictures as part of their Gerontius CD set for Chandos. In that voluptuous traversal Sarah Connolly sings like the golden girl who would be queen. This is grand Elgar in the tradition of Janet Baker, where soft low notes yearn and consecrate. At times the “r”s roll and things veer imperial. But there is another, more intimate way to woo these chords. It struck me immediately. Alice Coote nearly whispers the music to you like a woman in love. It isn’t a question of volume, of course. Coote sings all the dynamics as written. It’s her manner, so personal, so confessional. It matters less that her voice is slightly lighter than Connolly’s or that the orchestra’s pulse is less nautical. This isn’t tourist Elgar. This is three o’clock in the morning Elgar. And at that hour intimate tears are welcome.