Royal Scottish National Orchestra/Stéphane Denève

Berlioz, Roussel and Brahms

Festival Theatre, Edinburgh, 21 October 2008 3 stars

Steven OsborneThere's a local phrase that gets used in British concert life: meat and two veg. 'Vegetable' is always abbreviated to 'veg'. A meat-and-two-veg programme would invariably start with an overture, continue with a concerto, and (after the obligatory interval) conclude with a symphony. I had always assumed that the term referred to the traditional Sunday roast, at once acknowledging the virtue of tradition and ruing the want of imagination. Others, though, seem to use it in a more general sense of ordinariness (which of course is contrary to the spirit of specialness associated with the Sunday roast), a choice of repertoire that need not be familiar but which does need to be 'safe'.

No doubt the dietary habits of the nation have evolved since the term was coined (when? Certainly it was current in the 1970s), but what about our concert-going habits? I raise the question because there is a bit of a tension between audience and orchestra apparent in the RSNO's current programming. The trouble is that the old meat-and-two-veg repertoire is pretty dull fare for the orchestral spice rack—most notably the percussion section, but also the brass and to a lesser extent the woodwinds. But repertoire that better displays their collective talents poses more of a challenge to the audience. Since they are, for the most part, not only adults but likely to be parents of adult children, one can hardly insist that they 'eat their greens' because 'they are good for you'.

By now you are probably wondering what station this train of thought departed from. The question that first occurred to me was this: what sort of a vegetable might the Roman Carnival Overture be? It's a concert-hall medley Berlioz drew from his opera Benvenuto Cellini, an effervescent, slightly bonkers little effort that drew a sympathetic reading from Denève and the orchestra. My attention was particularly caught by the his 'n' hers tambourines, one playing right-handed, the other left-handed, in perfect sync.

Whatever Berlioz lacks in architectural heft, he generously makes up with the brilliance of his orchestration, but it is something of a reproach that the composer wraps it up for the evening as far as skilful orchestration is concerned. The original thought about vegetables arose before I realized that Roussel's poème de la forêt was published as his first symphony—something that I didn't realize till I got home, and something that the performance certainly failed to impress upon me.

Apparently this was the work's Scottish première. Now, I'm all in favour of giving things a try, but the Whig view of repertoire — if it was in the dustbin of history, leave it there — asks something extra of the archaeologist by way of justification. Roussel taught Satie and Varèse, which lends him credibility — but only so much. This is an apprentice piece at best, but do we care about Roussel's apprenticeship enough to share time with him a century later? It is hard to capture the work's characterlessness. The first movement opens with the kind of short-breathed melody, stilted rhythm and wooden harmony that's typical of French music in the period before Debussy—and it is not redeemed by compensating confidence. There's a brighter spell towards the end of the second movement, but really the only signs of life occur in the finale; a long time coming.

A couple of professional harpists had schlepped their harps all the way from Glasgow to be with us, for what? The odd arpeggio and — admittedly — a bit of content from one during the finale. But by then it had become irritatingly apparent that the capacities of the resources at the composer's disposal were being strewn rather carelessly. That's why I ended up feeling angry rather than indifferent: if there are resources going spare like this, spend them on a living composer for goodness's sake.

Still, it was the Brahms we came for. There are few concertos meaty enough to support a second half. It's a big piece, requiring a lot of the soloist: not only a big sound at the points of maximum density, but the touch to mould the lyrical passages to a coherent unity, and the character to bring off some passages of exposed, gratuitous virtuosity with the necessary élan. Steven  Osborne brought it off in style, ably supported by Denève and the orchestra. Sure he dropped a few handfuls early on, but that was soon forgotten. If the B flat concerto has a fault, it is that it is too meaty, in the sense that the four movements don't quite hang together. In particular, it is always difficult to integrate the scherzo convincingly; its energy seems tangential to that of the opening allegro, rather than a continuation. Osborne did as good a job as I can remember hearing, highlighting the abundance of unfolding motivic invention in the interior movements before rounding off with a sparkling reading of the finale.

By Peter Cudmore

Read recent concert reviews, including the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, here.