Poul Schierbeck: Fête galante
01 October 2013
International Record Review
Martin AndersonIn an ideal world the Overture to Poul Schierbeck’s opera Fête galante
would be a cornerstone of the orchestral repertoire: bighearted, witty and noble in turns, and sometimes in superposition, and exploiting orchestral colours and textures with the assured hand of a master craftsman, it exudes a square-jawed bonhomie that is difficult to resist. As it happens, the Overture was written after the opera, in 1931, and for decades its eight and a half minutes were more or less everything that anyone knew of the work from which it derived its lifeenhancing material. The opera itself turns out to be just as good as the Overture, a masterpiece which should be as frequently presented in the world’s opera houses as its Overture should be on the concert platforms.
Fête galante is a comedy of manners, its libretto adapted by Max Lobedanz from his own 1920 play; the music has its origins in Lobedanz’s request for incidental music for the play, but Schierbeck saw its operatic possibilities from the start. Dacapo’s material is a little confused on the dates of its composition: Jens Brincker’s booklet essay says 1923-27, but the dates given on page 2 are 1923-30, with revisions in 1931-32. A discrete footnote reveals that the version recorded here is the shortened one that Schierbeck prepared when the critics had a go at the original, premiered in 1931, for excessive length. He must have been very strict with himself: there’s not an unnecessary note here. (In this incarnation the three acts of Fête galante pan out at roughly 35, 39 and 40 minutes each.) The plot is a comedy of errors set in a château in Versailles: aided by three friends, René, a noble libertine, tries to dupe an innocent young girl into a casual dalliance, only to find that he really does love her after all and has rapidly to retrace his steps; other characters, among them Scaramouche and his raunchy wife and King Louis XV, no less, are woven into the action, each something of a caricature – which gives the singers here, all of them excellent, ample room for comic exaggeration.
Schierbeck began to study with Carl Nielsen in 1906, the year of the premiere of Nielsen’s opera Maskerade, and points of similarity between it and Fête galante are not hard to find. The Baroque setting is one, of course, and the plot is likewise based on the premise that love will triumph over social convention and the baser human instincts (though that’s hardly a trope confined to these two operas, of course). The chief common characteristic is the boundless musical resourcefulness deployed by the two composers: you might imagine that two such able symphonists would turn to lyric comedy by way of relaxation, but neither lowered his sights a whit, and the degree of imagination and inventiveness with which Schierbeck animates Fête galante is astounding – every number is brought alive by some special touch, a beguiling melody or counter-melody, a felicitous touch of scoring, a rhythmic surprise. For example, Schierbeck has enormous fun with the three gentlemen friends of the principal character, weaving their commonplace conversation into elaborate contrapuntal textures rather as Shostakovich did with some of his subordinate characters in his exactly contemporary The Nose. The basic reason for the effectiveness of Fête galante – its sheer exuberance aside for one moment – is that the emotions at play are genuine: when towards the end of Act 3 Suzon, the object of René’s attentions, realizes she has been duped and then, almost as soon, understands that he does love her after all, the music is honest and direct, and moving.
It’s difficult to single out any of the singers for especial commendation – not Dénise Beck as Suzon, nor Michael Weinius as René, nor Bo Skovhus as Scaramouche – so universally well sung are all the roles. The chorus, trained by Anne Marie Granau, doesn’t have much to do but delivers with nano-precision. The orchestral playing is a source of constant delight, whether in the chamber-musical textures that accompany much of the singing or in the full-blooded passages where the musicians are given their head – in the Overture, obviously, but also in the lusty Tarantella which opens the second act and the stern Prelude at the head of the third – with Michael Schønwandt never letting the onward drive falter for a second. The recorded sound (SACD) is first-rate, giving the singers immediacy and the orchestra both weight and detail. If you don’t speak Danish, James Manley’s translation allows you to enjoy Lobedanz’s spirited libretto.
In short, Fête galante is hugely enjoyable from start to finish, and this recording does it full justice. I wondered how it could possibly match the promise of the Overture, but its ceaseless invention maintains even that high standard. It’s one of those rare works that makes you happy to be alive, and I commend it to your attention with every enthusiasm.