United Kingdom Debussy, Bruch, Waksman: Nicola Benedetti (violin), Members of the National Youth Pipe Band of Scotland, Royal Scottish National Orchestra, Stéphane Denève (conductor), Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 30.09.2011 (SRT)
Traditional: Meggernie Castle
Debussy: Marche écossaise
Debussy: La Mer
Bruch: Scottish Fantasy
Fabien Waksman: Le parfum d’Aphrodite (world premiere)
The RSNO begin their new season with vigueur, panache and élan with a programme that exemplifies one of their themes of the year: Le vieux Alliance (the Auld Alliance). This is to be Stéphane Denève’s final season as RSNO Music Director (he leaves for Stuttgart in the summer) and to say farewell they have planned a season exploring the links between Scotland and France. This programme does so in ways that are in some ways obvious but in others quite innovative: Debussy’s Marche ècossaise, for example, is a free rhapsody on a traditional Scottish air called Meggernie Castle which may or may not be the family march of the Earls of Ross. It’s a very attractive tune, harmonised luxuriously and played beautifully, especially in its more reflective, wind-led central section; but before the orchestra played it tonight we heard the original air played on the pipes by three members of National Youth Pipe Band. It really worked, contrasting the “original” with Debussy’s very European re-working of it, which isn’t in the least bit Scottish but is still very good fun. It allowed the audience to appreciate more fully what Debussy found attractive in the original tune, as well as how much he tinkered with it for his own piece.
While many Romantic composers took inspiration from Scotland, Bruch’s Scottish Fantasy is unusual in that it is actually based on Scottish themes, including Scots wha hae, supposedly sounded by Robert the Bruce at Bannockburn. While the piece is inevitably rather clichéd, there are some things of real beauty in it too, and in the hands of Nicola Benedetti I found it genuinely surprising in places. There was a great sense of scale to the orchestral playing in the slow, serious introduction, against which Benedetti’s gentle, almost timid playing stood out as an excellent foil. In fact, her vision of the piece seemed to grow in stature and scale as the work progressed, almost in a linear fashion, with the exception of a truly beautiful set of variations on the balled I’m down for lack of Johnnie. She also brought surprising lyricism to the more gutsy folk melodies and the odd welcome touch of humour too.
The most exciting part of the evening for me, however, was a new work from a French composer whose name was also new to me. Waksman wrote Le parfum d’Aphrodite as a link to La Mer which was to be played directly after it, and he took for his inspiration the tale of Aphrodite, born out of the foam of the sea. In his programme note he said he wanted to make this piece “a hymn to beauty and femininity” and, to my ears, he succeeded triumphantly. Waksman structured his piece like an arch, beginning and ending with gentle undulations in the lower orchestra, like the ebb of the waves, building to a great climax with the appearance of Aphrodite herself. Waksman’s writing shares much of the shimmering, diaphanous quality of La Mer, creating a sound world that is often hypnotic, even transcendent, with an organic sense of growth throughout and a palpable feeling of excitement in the build-up to Aphrodite’s appearance, which then subsides as she disappears off on the waves. Powerful as the orchestra was at the climaxes, it’s the transparency of the writing for the individual instruments that sticks with me most, particularly a lovely passage for a set of solo strings just before the end. Waksman’s style is melodic, accessible and often very beautiful with a rich sense of harmony and a satisfying use of structure. I didn’t know his name before tonight but I’ll definitely look out for him in the future. After this, La Mer itself, with its restless sense of surging energy and wonderful play of light and shade, reminded me that no-one on these shores plays French music better than the RSNO.