The churches which abound in rural France – every village has at least one – are empty and devoid of congregations. One priest serves a hundred churches or more, and that’s mainly to officiate at funerals and weddings. Needless to say, there are many more of the former than the latter in this part of the world.
But those denizens of the region who remain seem not to want to be entirely cut off from the world of live music, whether classical or other. Consequently, and presumably also in order to attract tourists, during the summer months the local and regional authorities invest considerable efforts and energy in organising performances of one kind or another. And these are held – where else? – in the otherwise-deserted churches, where the acoustics serve to enhance even the most modest concert.
And so, in the Creuse region, where many houses are closed up and shuttered for most if not all of the year, in the summer the churches house a series of musical events, which can be defined as eclectic in the extreme, ranging from baroque and mediaeval music, both vocal and instrumental, to ensembles from as far afield as Madagascar and Istanbul.
The concert that marked the onset of the concert season was a performance of music by Stravinsky and Guillaume de Machaut, combining the twentieth century with the fifteenth, and was given in one of the region’s largest and most beautiful Romanesque churches, in La Souterraine. Arriving in good time, we found that already twenty minutes before the concert was due to begin there was hardly a single vacant seat. The audience may have been composed solely of the proud parents and/or children of the members of the choir and orchestra, but everyone was waiting expectantly, eager to hear the music.
The first half of the evening’s performance went smoothly enough, although the pieces played were somewhat tuneless to the unaccustomed ear. After the interval, however, when Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms was performed, the atmosphere became electric.
The orchestra, comprising two pianos, timpani, wind and brass instruments, but no strings other than contrabasses and one cello, played the first, striking e-minor chord with a fortissimo that set the hairs at the back of my neck prickling, and did so with perfect timing – no easy feat. The three choirs that had been brought together for the occasion also produced the most glorious and disciplined sound, causing the fluted vault of the church to vibrate in sympathy. The entire production was a tribute to the conductor, Jean-Michel Hasler, and when the music ended the audience begged for more. The performers generously obliged, once again performing the dramatic opening section.
The next day, by coincidence, we heard a performance of the same work broadcast on the radio. But what a difference! It sounded so tame, so devoid of the splendor that had characterized the performance of the previous evening. It seems that no matter how good one’s equipment is, nothing can compare with hearing music live, and especially in a church.