Grime: Virga; Szymanowski: Violin Concerto No. 2; Berlioz: Symphonie Fantastique

Zimmermann, Royal Scottish National Orchestra/Denève

Usher Hall, 17 November 2010 4 stars

Frank Peter Zimmerman

A title like 'ten out of 10' runs the risk of offering a hostage to fortune, with the latest offering in the RSNO's series coming hot on the heels of a particularly strong entry in Kaija Saariaho's Orion. The claim is that these are ten works from the first ten years of the 21st century that will stand the test of time. This week's choice was Helen Grime's Virga, a work that has already caught the attention of some eminent ears, notably Pierre Boulez and Oliver Knussen—the latter's prom performance last year catching Stéphan Denève's attention.

The work itself is very short. Probably, although it doesn't last very long by any measure, it is the contrast between the dense orchestral textures and the overall duration that makes it seem so brief: there's an expectation of rhetorical extension raised by that density, which is at odds with the idea of evanescence conveyed by 'virga'—a form of precipitation that evaporates before reaching the ground. Certainly Grime has an enviable orchestral competence, and, despite falling in with gestural devices that have become pretty familiar in European avant-garde works of the recent past, she has a distinctive voice.

What was kind of irksome, though, was all the cotton wool surrounding the presentation of the work. A programme note written as though addressing imbeciles, and a lengthy interview between the conductor and the composer prior to the performance during which nothing of note was said, and after which another lengthy pause ensued while the latter reached her seat. Temporizing while he waited, Denève joked about playing the work five times. It would have been perfectly reasonable to at least play it twice. Is there an etiquette about such things? Would it set a precedent?

I’m open to persuasion that the work will last as predicted, but I suspect that it will serve as a waypoint in the development of a composing career that I'm altogether more confident will be a successful one. About seven out of ten, is the answer.

Following that, Frank Peter Zimmermann joined the orchestra for a performance of Szymanowski's second violin concerto—making for a strong contrast with the Grime, though with certain continuities in the lush middle registers of string writing. It is an attractive work, offering the soloist much more by way of rapport with individual members of the orchestra than one often finds, and plenty of lively, dancing rhythms that had Zimmermann practically dancing in response at times in an appealingly communicative interpretation. (His encore, the andante from Bach's second solo sonata, was eloquent and almost insistently serene.)

After the interval came the spectacular Symphonie Fantastique. Last week and this, the RSNO hasn't been quite at the remarkable peak of performance that it was achieving earlier in the year; noticeably in the first movement there were moments of sketchy, uncertain ensemble. Happily things improved as the work progressed—as the score's dimensions and colours become bolder, so too did the orchestra seem to magnify into an assured, extrovert, but carefully balanced voice, doing full justice to the score's opportunities and demands.

Symphonie Fantastique is the gauntlet Berlioz threw down, saying 'the nineteenth century starts here'. While the imaginatively expanding role of the winds and percussion that seems to unfold before one's ears and eyes is the most obvious expression of this gesture, it is in the extramusical dimension where the true innovation lies. Already the insistence on a detailed narrative is something new in scale, if not unprecedented in concept with the example of Beethoven's 'Pastoral' in mind. Berlioz signals a new relationship between composer and audience, at once more distant and more familiar. The idée fixe concept that Berlioz introduced to mediate this new relationship has gone on to become a staple technique in the making of cinematic scores, which is appropriate since Symphonie Fantastique is effectively a movie without pictures.

The nagging feeling remains, all the same, that all the programmatic scaffolding is somehow ersatz, asking the listener to do the work. An example that again connects with last week's Rakhmaninov is the dies irae motif in the finale. The listener is supposed to know what it is, and what it signifies, yet if a nineteenth-century composer were to start from scratch setting that particular text (cf. Verdi), it is unlikely that they would come up with something so mellifluous. Still, it's great to leave the hall with one's head spinning.

By Peter Cudmore

Photo: Frank Peter Zimmermann


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