Debussy: Printemps; Jeux; Shostakovich: Concerto for Piano, Trumpet and Strings; Piano Concerto No. 2

Steven Osborne, John Gracie, Royal Scottish National Orchestra/Denève

Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 7 December 20114 and a half stars

DebussyIt is interesting to reflect that, while this season's Debussy series is tied to preparation for a recording engagement with Chandos, concert life for the RSNO continues and takes its own path. While CDs tend to be homogenous, single-composer single-form affairs, this time out a notably elegant piece of programming pairs the two Debussy works Printemps and Jeux with the two piano concertos of Shostakovich. It turns out that both were around twenty-five years of age when composing the first, and around fifty at the time of the second, making for some fascinating points of comparison.

In Debussy's case, the non-linear style emerging in Printemps persists and, for all that Jeux benefits from the confidence of maturity, in many respects that non-linearity pervades his career. If Printemps seldom gets performed these days, it is a strange work featuring a piano duet and an orchestral score created retrospectively under the composer's supervision rather than by his own hand. That may account in part for why there is a measure of stylistic advancement about it; certainly there are many moments of magical colouration, brought splendidly and aptly to life in Stéphane Denève's iridescent reading.

In his characteristically ebullient pre-performance address to the audience—on this occasion verging on a stand-up comedy routine—Denève remarked on the personal warmth of his relationship with soloist Steven Osborne, something that has matured in the course of his tenure at the RSNO. It was a rare joy to see this visibly manifested in a brilliant reading of Shostakovich's Concerto for piano, trumpet and strings. One felt a little for trumpet soloist John Gracie, a bit of a wallflower at Shostakovich's behest, seated behind Osborne’s back where rapport would have to be imagined—though when called upon his contribution was no less brilliant.

This crackling score dates from around 1930, before the composer had his natural vivacity sharply reined in by the Soviet authorities. While it benefits from that relative liberty, though, there are piquant echoes of the acidic ninth symphony keeping sentimentality in check. There were moments of explosive chemistry between soloist and conductor, but also some absolutely ravishing pianissimo passages bespeaking Denève's meticulous attention to detail.

Jeux has long had the reputation of being difficult, abstract and inscrutable. Of a piece with Debussy's mystical interests while walking the ramparts of the intellectual frontier with scientists and philosophers of the time.

Well, it turns out that the manuscript is heavily annotated with staging remarks, for this is a ballet score composed for Diaghilev's company in 1913. And it turns out that the work's on-stage persona is stultifyingly, almost comically banal. A dashing young swain with a tennis racquet is to arrive, followed by a pair of lively girls. All of this narrative—ball gets lost in bushes; you get the picture—in a thoughtful touch, was displayed on a surtitling rig suspended above the orchestra. It was one of those occasions when one is grateful for the information, but glad to put it to one side.

The score, after all, remains challenging—in a good way. There is plenty of typically pliant, transient and translucent thematic evolution realized in enchanting colour. There is, though, also that non-linearity, a refusal of teleology that is as revolutionary in its way as the breakdown of perspective in the Impressionists' and post-impressionists' visual style—something that perhaps accounts for the comparison which so irked Debussy. One couldn’t imagine him being irked by this performance, though, once again painstakingly conceived and vividly executed by orchestra and conductor.

If the difference between the younger and older Debussy was not as wide as one might expect, there was certainly a discernible distance between the younger and older Shostakovich. In its way as distinctive sounding as the earlier concerto, this one dispenses with trumpets and trombones, leaving only the warmth of the horns to represent the brass, and recruits a barely minimal percussion section. While there is a corresponding restraint about its thematic palette, the result is nevertheless a lively and generous gift to his son and to its audience. Though the concerto is not without its wistful moments, with a reminiscence of Prokofiev’s third concerto woven in along the way, the finale is so full of fun and mischief that the concluding flourish finished off the concert in resounding and sparkling style.

By Peter Cudmore

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