Voluptuous Roussel from Denève; Sensational Prokofiev from Hilary Hahn.

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Debussy, Prokofiev, Roussel: Hilary Hahn (violin), Royal Scottish National Orchestra, Stéphane Denève (conductor), Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 27.01.2012 (SRT)

Debussy: Nocturnes
Prokofiev: Violin Concerto No. 1
Roussel: Bacchus et Ariane

Tonight took us further along Stéphane Denève’s voyage into the orchestral music of Debussy, one of the key themes of this, his final season as the RSNO’s Music Director. He has already turned this orchestra into one of Britain’s finest ensembles for French music, and his Debussy performances have been the highlights of his season so far. Nocturnes was (probably) inspired by some of Whistler’s paintings, and Denève cast himself as musical artist painting with a formidable palette in the shape of his orchestra. The wispy, suggestive string tone of the opening Nuages gave way to explosions of colour in Fêtes, with exhilarating doses of percussion and splashes of brass. Denève controlled the swirling arc of Debussy’s score with a keen sense of where the music was going, something all too easy to lose sight of in this work, right down to the hypnotic, if slightly repetitious, sound of the women’s voices in Sirènes. The orchestra inhabited each aspect of the score as if they had been specially honed for it, be it the suggestions of other-worldly seclusion or the three trumpets in the procession section that did a fantastic job of persuading us that their sound was coming from another room!

Superstar violinist Hilary Hahn has developed a close relationship with the RSNO. They recently toured Europe together and the sound they produced for Prokofiev’s first violin concerto was testament to how relaxed they are with one another. Every concerto should be a conversation to some degree, and Hahn’s reading was very much a partnership with the orchestra. It’s quite something to achieve that when her playing was so sensational. From the broad, lyrical curve of the opening, through to the lovely pianissimo interplay with the flute at the end of the first movement, she played with wonderful purity of tone. Even the featherdown scampering of the Scherzo had a singing quality to it, which developed into confident swagger without losing its musicality. I especially loved the way the violin line took flight against the mechanical ticking of the orchestra in the finale, and the whole work ended with an arc of melody as graceful as that with which it began. Hahn herself is a great dramatist as well as a great musician: she commands the stage with a statuesque presence of body but a hugely expressive tone that lifts her playing into the realms of the very special. The casual flair with which she dashed off the presto from Bach’s first sonata (her encore) was extraordinary.

Great as this was, however, nothing could have prepared me for the extraordinary assault on the senses provided by Roussel’s Bacchus et Ariane. Denève is a passionate advocate for Roussel’s music (they were born in the same town) and he argues a convincing case for him as a highly significant 20th Century composer. Bacchus et Ariane was one of the first works he performed with the RSNO, and he recorded it with them in 2006, so it’s a score close to his heart. Last season he gave us another Roussel ballet in concert, but whereas The Spider’s Feast tends to work through suggestion and half-light, Bacchus et Ariane hits the listener right between the eyes from the word “go”. The orgiastic opening bars exploded off the page with astounding energy and the sheer excitement of the score didn’t let up until the final bars. Much of the score pulsates with an energy and rhythm that put the score in the same company as The Rite of Spring, but there’s a languid exoticism to the score that is particularly French, especially in the second part, depicting Bacchus’ seduction of Ariadne, which shimmers with erotic tension. This section also has a string melody to die for, and it’s played for all it’s worth by the RSNO violins, sounding positively voluptuous in their warmth of tone. As the closing Bacchanale shook the rafters the response from the audience was as appreciative as it was well deserved. It’s a tremendous testament to Denève’s achievement that he has made this orchestra so comfortable with French repertoire that is far from their staple fare: more than that, tonight was proof that he has shaped them into a crack team for playing French music. It is perhaps Denève’s greatest legacy to them.

Incidentally, this concert was broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 and can be heard on the iPlayer until Friday 3rd February.

Simon Thompson