RSNO’s Franco-Scottish Concert Fails to Impress

27/02/2012

Berlioz, Canteloube, Franck: Lisa Milne (soprano), Royal Scottish National Orchestra, Fabien Gabel (conductor), Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 24.2.2012 (SRT)

Berlioz: Rob Roy Overture
Canteloube: Songs of the Auvergne
Franck: Symphony

You would think that the items and the artists on this programme would be a perfect way to explore the relationship between Scotland and France, one of the RSNO’s themes for this year, but as it turned out this was one of least successful concerts of the season so far. Berlioz’ Rob Roy Overture is nothing to do with Scott’s hero: instead it’s a collection of Celtic-inflected tunes with jaunty rhythms and sweeping orchestration to give them an allegedly Scottish lilt. Admittedly, Scots wha hae is one of its chief constituent parts, but the most successful part of the work is its least Scottish sounding, a sensitive duet for the harp and cor anglais. It’s harmless fun but it’s pretty hackneyed in places and it’s hard to believe that it came from the same composer as the Symphonie Fantastique, which was written only one year earlier! You can see why Berlioz dismissed it as “long and diffuse”, though he might have gone a bit far by burning the score after its premiere. It survives because the French Academy already had a copy.

It’s a personal prejudice, but I’ve never liked the Songs of the Auvergne. For me they are repetitious and inconsequential. I’m happy to admit that there are some pleasing orchestral effects, but even a technically fine performance like this one didn’t change my mind that this is music that goes nowhere rather slowly. Lisa Milne’s ham acting and irritatingly breathy tone didn’t help matters. No doubt her soprano was rich and lovely, but she was so frequently inaudible over the orchestra that I don’t feel qualified to express a judgement.

It was left to the Franck Symphony to save the day (not a sentence I ever thought I’d say!). The composer evokes a solemn world, often majestic, though with colours that are predominantly dark. It has fine moments, such as the gently rocking procession of the Allegretto second movement, but it isn’t a work in the top league, not least due to the over-rich, often heavy instrumentation. Fabien Gabel did his best to breathe some life into it, but while some might describe its structure as motivic, others would call it repetitious. Good performances don’t always redeem mediocre music.

Simon Thompson

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