Led by the expressively exacting conductor Charles Dutoit, the San Francisco Symphony this week is performing two colossal religious works for orchestra and chorus. One turns out to be sensuous, warm-hearted, light as air: a pious souffle. It's by Poulenc. The other is ponderous, weighty, straining for effect: a reverential meat dish. Like a bulging roast, spilling off its platter, it's by Berlioz.
Poulenc's "Stabat Mater" and Berlioz's "Te Deum" are "big-deal pieces," as James M. Keller, the orchestra's program annotator, put it in a preconcert talk Wednesday at Davies Symphony Hall. Neither is performed all that much, however. Poulenc's work, from 1951, has taken a back seat to his better-known "Gloria." Likewise, Berlioz's colossus, from 1849, is overshadowed by his Requiem. At Wednesday's program, which repeats through Sunday, the contrast between these two French evocations of religious ideals couldn't have been greater.
Clocking in at around half an hour -- with Swiss-born Dutoit maintaining a sensuous pulse even through its slowest and (so they say) most sorrowful movements -- Poulenc's opus was delectable. That adjective may seem inappropriate, is a reference to Mary mourning her crucified son. It's just that with this piece (prompted by the sudden death in 1949 of Poulenc's friend, fashion illustrator Christian Berard), sorrow seems such a pleasure.
Abetted by the 124-voice San Francisco Symphony Chorus, directed by Ragnar Bohlin, the opening "Stabat Mater dolorosa" was lush and jazzy. The chorus took the full measure of the composer's five-part writing; a satiny blend, weighted toward darker colors. Then the piece went skipping through its 12 brief movements.
"O quam tristis" sported an angel-sheen mingling of voices above harps, flutes and Poulenc's float-you-away melodic turns. (Even the word "afflicta" was gorgeous.) "Quae moerebat" offered more chiffon textures, cheerily -- and with a mellow Nelson Riddle ending. In "Vidit suum," soprano soloist Erin Wall sang of the dying and forsaken Jesus; her voice glowed with warm and delicate color. Her sighing words conveyed heavenly sentiment, for sure, but again with sensuous fullness.
There were a few hitches -- attacks that didn't quite line up -- but overall, this was a marvelous performance of a glorious piece. Here and there in the score, the low strings strike notes of anguish: jagged passages evoking sword thrusts at Jesus on the cross. But Poulenc can't help himself; one imagines him lingering over chord sequences, making them just a little bit more sleek and stunning. Even his flames of hell emit a toasty afterglow.
Berlioz, by contrast, is too bulked up: bring out the roast, the pullets and the rest of the oversized menu. Aiming "Te Deum" at the throngs attending the 1855 Universal Exhibition in Paris, the composer assembled some 900 singers and instrumentalists for the work's premiere. He recently had seen a 6,500-voice children's chorus in London, and was putting on a show with this work, scored for pipe organ, two mixed choruses, children's chorus, tenor soloist and very large orchestra.
"Te Deum laudamus," the opening hymn, begins with monumental chords alternating between organ and orchestra. But for all the work's concoctions -- six-part textures, raging fugues, rattling pedal tones (organist Jonathan Dimmock was excellent) and effects that evoke everything from wafting incense to tolling cathedral bells -- "Te Deum" is not one of Berlioz's prime works. Across six movements, for a good 50 minutes, he strains for impact, while missing his typical vivacity and charm.
The performers -- including the ebullient, 55-voice Pacific Boychoir, directed by Kevin Fox -- did all they could to bring it off. But "Te Deum" is like arena rock that falls flat.
With one exception. Berlioz was a master of the unexpected, and his fifth movement, out of the blue, segues into a solo for tenor voice that sounds like something ripped off from Rossini. (Actually, Berlioz ripped it off from something he himself had composed 25 years earlier.) Tenor Paul Groves was the lusty, pleading supplicant in this prayer cum aria, in which Berlioz throws off pretensions and pierces the heart.
San Francisco Symphony
Charles Dutoit, guest conductor
with the San Francisco Symphony Chorus, Pacific Boychoir, soprano Erin Wall, tenor Paul Groves
When: 8 p.m., Feb. 9; 2 p.m., Feb. 10
Where: Davies Symphony Hall, 201 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco
Tickets: $34-$150; 415-864-6000, www.sfsymphony.org