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Morison, RSNO, Järvi, Usher Hall, Edinburgh review – French romance | reviews, news & interviews

Morison, RSNO, Järvi, Usher Hall, Edinburgh review – French romance

Morison, RSNO, Järvi, Usher Hall, Edinburgh review – French romance

Good Gallic ingredients from the great Scottish-Estonian partnership don’t quite add up

The great Neeme Järvi, back with his beloved Scottish orchestraSimon van Boxtel

To hear Neeme Järvi conduct the Royal Scottish National Orchestra is to witness one of the great musical partnerships, one that has evolved into an enduring friendship. It was in 1984 that the Estonian Järvi was appointed to succeed Sir Alexander Gibson as the then SNO’s principal conductor; as a BBC technician at the time I remember his first radio interview with BBC Scotland – this unknown conductor, from an almost forgotten Baltic state, seemed shy and awkward in front of the microphone and struggled in faltering English to articulate his vision for the orchestra. But what a difference he made! He was only at the helm for four years, but he transformed the orchestra from a parochial institution into a world class ensemble.

His gift to the orchestra has never been forgotten. It was not until 2006, after a nine year absence, that he was appointed Conductor Laureate, and his last appearance with the orchestra was in 2015, but when he is re-united with the players he once called his “Berlin Philharmonic” these long interegnums count for nothing. Now somewhat stiff of gait, and sparing in his gesticulations, he still holds this orchestra --and its audience -- in the palm of his hand.

Cariona MorisonThe programme for this concert was a slightly mixed bag. Owing to the regrettable indisposition of Sarah Connolly, Reger’s Serenade and An die Hoffnung were dropped from the programme and replaced with excerpts from Delibes’ ballet Sylvia and Bizet’s opera Carmen, the latter sung by mezzo Catriona Morison, 2017 Cardiff Singer of the World (pictured left)..

Whatever depth Järvi might have brought to the Reger became, in the Delibes, a charmingly lightweight celebration of orchestral athletics. We were left to imagine nymphs cavorting, worshipping Bacchus, shooting each other with arrows and all the joyful nonsense of a late 19th century mythological ballet, but the music is gorgeous, tuneful, and was played with deft precision. A special mention to some lovely playing from the clarinet in a duet with the front desk of the cellos, which leads into the "Valse lente".

Morison came on stage dressed in a scarlet ballgown and sporting a necklace containing most of the diamonds in Scotland – she certainly looked the part of the femme fatale for three of the big arias from Carmen: the Habanera, the solo in the Card Scene and the Seguidilla. She sounded it too; there was nothing too brash or openly seductive, for the most part she conveyed the text in a gentle mezzo forte that only occasionally blossomed but was never pushed. Her French was excellent – she has the flexible embouchure for the language. Best of the three was the Card Scene monologue, a dark vision of Carmen’s fate with some gloriously low notes and as much a sense of menace as you could expect from an aria sung out of context. If there was a disappointment it was in the programming – despite an orchestral prelude the arias don’t really segue very easily – indeed the third one had got under way before Järvi  had found his place in the score, and it all came to an abrupt close without anyone really realising it.

Michael BawtreeI suspect most of the audience were there for Saint-Saëns's Third Symphony, the "Organ”. It is still a cause for local celebration, tinged with relief, that the Usher Hall organ, out of commission for most of the 1980s and 1990s is back in triumphant working order and is available on those rare occasions when composers choose to add heft to their orchestral writing with the inclusion of the king of instruments. This is an unashamedly romantic showpiece, with a glittering cascade of scales from a piano duet (slightly too quiet to be appreciated) and a hefty contribution from the organ, whose role is not just adding ballast to the soundscape but is actually pivotal to the forward march of the music. That said, the low pedal notes that accompanied the melodious adagio were so low as to be almost pitchless, not so much music but an audible manifestation of great power. Michael Bawtree (pictured above), well known in the city as an organist and conductor, certainly knows his way around the restored Norman and Beard instrument, which boomed and quaked impressively in the final peroration.

The applause was vocal enough, encouraged by a mischievous Järvi, to merit an encore. At one moment it looked as if they might reprise the last movement, but I suspect the organist had run out of stops to pull and they settled instead for the waltz from Delibes’s Coppélia, a lovely bonne bouche to end the evening. Clasping his baton and score under one arm, Järvi gallantly offered his other to the deputy leader whom he led off stage to continuing applause.

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