Stéphane Denève's final season at the helm of the RSNO has been conceived as a celebration of the auld alliance, and it is a measure of how far the orchestra has come under his leadership that there was a strong sense of occasion, garnished with dignitaries, at the opening concert in Edinburgh. Scotland’s first minister was there, along with the secretary for culture and external affairs, the French ambassador to the UK and the French consul in Edinburgh.
At the season's core is a major recording project, with Chandos due to issue a double album of the major Debussy orchestral works in time for the season finale in May next year. It remains to be seen whether there will be space for the Marche ecossaise, but, characteristically, this early and little-known work received a highly polished and enchanting reading, preceded by the original theme performed by the National Youth Pipe Band of Scotland—well, three of them, at least; stood just in front of the organ, and making a splendid blaze of sound that contrasted amiably with the altogether more mellifluous Debussy that followed. Although not the most martial of marches, apart from the short but lively climax, Marche ecossaise certainly has enough about it to merit further outings.
Bruch's Scottish Fantasy lives in the shadow of the famous violin concerto, and yet there's an eerie familiarity about it, no doubt due to the use of traditional melodies that Bruch discovered in the Scots Musical Museum. The full title is The Fantasia for the Violin and Harp, freely using Scottish Folk Melodies, and, in addition to the harp, it is a work with plenty of attractive touches to lift it out of the ordinary. Strangely, though, there is little opportunity for the two soloists to establish a rapport. It isn't just that the charismatic performance of Nicola Benedetti holds one's attention; the harp, one might say, is a naturally modest instrument. Saying that, there’s a certain modesty, too, about Ms Benedetti. Hers is not the most voluble of sounds, but there is an attractive elegance about her stage presence that complements the eloquence of her playing.
Further contributing to the sense of occasion, a world premiere followed the interval, by the young French composer Fabien Waksman. Le parfum d'Aphrodite was conceived as an allusion to the mythic birth of the goddess, from the spume thrown up when Cronus killed his father and threw the corpse into the sea. It is a neat idea to make this allusive connection to La Mer for the commission. However, were it not for some wonderful percussion writing, and especially his brilliant use of the full range of muted brass effects, Waksman's score could have eased uncontroversially into a programme a century ago, so conventional is his harmonic language (some people would no doubt regard that comment as a complement rather than a criticism). It would be too harsh to call Le parfum nature-documentary-music—there’s a clear sense of architecture and singular purpose—but that’s its milieu. It's just a shame that such an excellent orchestral technique is being harnessed to such banal material.
Rounding out the evening, Denève's reading of La Mer was characteristically well thought through and well executed. His tempos and his carefully shaped phrasing by turns played nicely judged light and shade on the more reflective passages, while lashing a fair old tempest out of the closing Dialogues. It was a performance that augurs well—as if there was any doubt—for the forthcoming CD when it arrives next year.
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