Long after memories of this concert melt into the general filing system, people will remember the encore that the Canadian virtuoso James Ehnes performed tonight: Paganini's famous caprice no. 24. It is hard to think of another work that says ‘look upon my encore, o ye mortals, and despair!' in quite the same way as one improbably brilliant variation gives way to the next; only Bach's D minor chaconne comes readily to mind, and that only to measure the scale of the spectacle. My favourite was the left-hand pizzicato variation. It was like a prospector walking into the assay office and sprinkling a handful of gold on the table, every note a sparkling nugget. It is not an exaggeration to say that there were gasps and chuckles of disbelief as the cavalcade proceeded. And believe it or not, he performed an encore to the encore; caprice no. 16, in case anyone needed the answer to the question: how do you follow that?
If there was any touch of sentimentality about this treat, it would be Ehnes' saluting Stéphane Denève in his last-but-one concert with the RSNO, for he had taken the solo role in Denève's very first outing with the orchestra some ten years ago. Tonight, he had just given a searing performance of Barber's violin concerto. It is quite a remarkable work from a composer whose career output overall tends toward the respectable rather than the exceptional. Dating from 1939, it shares with other work of the period a sense of feeling towards a distinctively American identity, notably eschewing a Germanic flavour in favour of a French- and Italian-influenced sensibility backed by a muscular ambition and, in the finale, a powerful and forward-looking synthesis. Altogether it is a work of light and shade that suited Denève and the RSNO as well as it did the soloist.
Prefacing the Barber, the ensemble gave the last of their series of Debussy's major orchestral works, L'apres midi d'un faune. Curiously, despite the marvellously soft and lustrous sonority that they generated, there was a sense that something wasn't quite there, that ripe tang of eroticism that marks the very best performances. Still, this has been an absorbing and most welcome thread this season, now committed to disc (and available as digital download) by Chandos.
Looking at the nearly-full house, it was easy to forget that in reality this was a fairly challenging programme by mainstream standards. For some members of the audience, Debussy still counts as modern, while Barber is something of an unknown quantity even though the violin concerto is possibly second only to the Adagio for strings among his most familiar work. And then, of course, there's the Stravinsky. Bold, abrasive and brilliant, the Rite of Spring is nevertheless a work that is full of tunes. Strangely unstable and unpredictable though their lines may be, these are imbued with an appreciation of, if not respect for, Stravinsky's native pre-revolutionary-Russian folk idioms.
In a nice note in the programme, principal bassoon David Hubbard recalled performing in the Théâtre de Champs-Élysees, where the Rite received its raucous and controversial première, and playing the fabled opening melody while warming up before that evening's performance began. Tonight he and his colleagues were in sparkling form, although, as with L'apres-midi earlier, Denève was slightly subdued. There was nothing wrong with the pacing or the shape, but somehow it fell a mite short as an overall dramatic arc. Like Salonen last summer, he took the Rondes printanieres at a stately pace, for instance, but he didn't quite release the hounds in Jeux des Cités Rivales to maximum effect. We are talking, though, of marginal flaws in a vibrant and spectacular performance.
The prolonged applause afterwards almost lapsed into sentimentality, but Mr Denève cut it short by heading out for the mercenary business of signing CDs in the lobby. That will come next week, no doubt, when he bids Scotland adieu.
Opera Review: Gerald Finley in Eugene Onegin at the Royal Opera
Concert Review: Kurtag's Kafka Fragments at the Wigmore Hall
Concert Review: The Budapest Festival Orchestra at the Proms in 2009 in Bartok