Comissiona and BSO demonstrate that French sweets do not go stale

March 20, 1992|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Music Critic

The beautiful becomes boring very quickly. This can be especially true in an all-French orchestral program of works by Faure, Debussy and Ravel. Two hours of this stuff is like a binge in a high-class pastry shop: The satisfactions begin to pall, and you just want to go to sleep.

That was not a problem last night in Meyerhoff Hall when Sergiu Comissiona conducted the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and Chorus in a program of Faure's Requiem, Debussy's "La Damoiselle Elue" and Ravel's second "Daphnis et Chloe" suite.

Comissiona, the BSO's conductor laureate, may not be the man you want on the podium for all occasions. His beat is not particularly precise -- his German repertoire is his weak point -- and he is not the most dependable of accompanists. But if any one can create a sense of the perfumed air that Baudelaire speaks about in his poetry and that is the essence of French music at the turn of the 20th century, it's Comissiona.

This was a night of inspired music-making: It had color, it had sensuous sweep and it had feeling.

In some ways the high point of the program was the rarely performed Debussy work, a secular cantata that is a setting of Dante Gabriel Rossetti's "The Blessed Damozel."

This is early Debussy -- the music comes very close to the heartsick, eroticized chromaticism of Wagner's "Tristan" -- but it's a great work. Every detail in this lush music was conveyed with conviction and passion.

The singers were terrific: Faith Esham, as the damozel waiting in heaven for her lover and the continuation of their earthly passion, sang with heartbreaking sincerity and beauty of tone, and Catherine Robbin was touching as the narrator. The women of the BSO chorus were a sympathetic chorus of angels.

The rest of the program was also well-played:

The Faure Requiem was deeply felt, its expressive ambience hindered only by an electronic organ (how Meyerhoff needs a real organ!).

The Ravel suite built excitingly to its orgasmic conclusion, with the members of the orchestra giving an impressive demonstration of their virtuosity in the breathtakingly fast finale.

The concert will be repeated tonight at 8:15 p.m.

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