mon 17/12/2018

Osborne, RSNO, Denève, Usher Hall, Edinburgh | reviews, news & interviews

Osborne, RSNO, Denève, Usher Hall, Edinburgh

Osborne, RSNO, Denève, Usher Hall, Edinburgh

Gallic charm from a returning Maestro

Maestro Denève, before the beard

“Bon soir, good evening! Nice to see you! To see you...” Four years after bidding an emotional farewell to the Usher Hall, the Gallic charmer is back, maybe slightly stouter, with a tinge of grey in a new beard, the great mop of curly red hair as unruly as ever. And that accent! As the anecdotes flow, stout middle-aged Edinburgers swoon as they imagine themselves drinking pastis on the Boulevard St Germain in the spring sunshine.

Stéphane Denève was music director of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra for seven years, during which time he fell in love with Scotland and Scotland fell in love with him. Many will argue that it is as unnecessary for a conductor to speak as it is for an author to do book readings, but there is no doubt that a large part of Denève’s popularity in Scotland derived from his podium speeches, carefully crafted with a blend of wisdom, humour, and mischievous mistranslation. Of course he also made his mark with his passion for interesting and eclectic repertoire, taking the orchestra into previously unknown byways.

MacMillan has lost none of his ability to score a vast wall of sound

The return of a maestro, particularly one of Denève’s calibre (he now has orchestras in Germany, Belgium, and America under his control), is bound to be something of an indulgence: by his own confession the five pieces in this concert were both a celebration of the Auld Alliance between France and Scotland but also something of a personal pilgrimage for Denève himself.

He began with Debussy’s slight but feisty Marche écossaise, based on an old Scottish clan melody. To place the piece in context Denève arranged for a solo piper to stand in the organ gallery and deliver the original tune, immediately followed by the orchestra. Notwithstanding the lurch of tonality between the ancient and modern, the bagpipes proved an effective prelude – I have never heard the instrument in this hall and I thought it rather affecting for a young man in highland regalia to fill the auditorium with such emotive sounds.

Next up was the UK premiere of Sir James MacMillan’s The Death of Oscar. This commission came about after Denève “literally, fell in love with a sculpture by Alexander Stoddard” – the piece was a model of the dying Oscar (in Celtic legend, the warrior son of Ossian) which Stoddard intends to carve, Mount Rushmore-style, into a vast granite cliff in the highlands. Whether that will ever happen is a moot point, but what did happen was MacMillan’s ten-minute orchestral tone poem, jointly commissioned by the RSNO and others, first performed almost three years ago in Stuttgart.

I have not come across much of MacMillan’s work since early days when audiences reeled under the percussive vehemence in pieces such as The Exorcism of Rio Sumpul or The Confession of Isobel Gowdie. On the evidence of The Death of Oscar, MacMillan has lost none of his ability to score a vast wall of sound that is both visceral and strangely reassuring, but in the moments in between there was writing of wit and beauty – a lyrical cor anglais solo was enchanting enough to be the backdrop to a tourist film on Glencoe (though the composer would probably not thank me for the suggestion).

Steven OsborneWe were still in the first half of the concert, Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand still to come, then, after the interval, Strauss’ Death and Transfiguration, and finally Ravel’s La Valse. You might imagine that the Strauss would be the cuckoo in the nest – a very different sound world from the overt sensuality of the two pieces by Ravel. Its inclusion in the programme was prompted by Denève’s position as chief conductor of the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra where presumably it’s the sort of piece they play every day before breakfast. If Denève could not quite make the RSNO sound like a central European orchestra (the brass is there, the strings not quite as honeyed and rich as they could be), it was not for want of trying.

Steven Osborne (pictured above) was the popular and brilliant choice of pianist for the concerto. “Only one hand, and he still wants the full fee! – well, he is Scottish,” quipped Denève. There is something of the magician in Osborne, particularly in a concerto that sounds enough of a challenge for two hands, let alone just one. Ravel makes absolutely no concessions to style or fluidity for the one-handed pianist (it was commissioned by Paul Wittgenstein, who had lost an arm in the First World War) and it was only by seeing Osborne’s right hand tucked resolutely out of the way that I could believe that the brilliant cadenza was the product of just five agile fingers.

The dark hues of the concerto’s opening suggested a strange continuity with the end of Oscar, and by the same token there was much less of a stylistic hiatus between Death and Transfiguration and La Valse than you might have expected. It was almost as if the ghost of Strauss’ protagonist was being whisked by muted, ethereal strings into a great heavenly waltz in which all the sounds of life and love collide in brash, vulgar ecstasy. Many think rather dimly of La Valse, but there is no doubt that it was the most fitting end for a splendid evening.

It was only by seeing Osborne’s right hand tucked resolutely out of the way that I could believe that the brilliant cadenza was the product of just five agile fingers

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Average: 4 (1 vote)

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