Schmaltzy Wallace, Thrilling Strauss and Lustrous Elgar from RSNO

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Wallace, Strauss, Elgar: Tasmin Little (violin), Royal Scottish National Orchestra, Sir Andrew Davis (conductor), Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 3.2.2012 (SRT)

Wallace: Pelléas et Melisande suite
Strauss: Don Juan
Elgar: Violin Concerto

A Scottish composer named William Wallace? No, not that one. This one was a Victorian gent with a penchant for melody, but his response to Pelleas et Melisande is rather bizarre when you put it next to those of Debussy, Schoenberg or Sibelius. Wallace’s suite of 1900 seems to take Materlinck’s play as a jumping off point and an inspiration for some very hummable, if slightly comical tunes that seem a world away from the half-light and opaque suggestion of the source material. The love theme sounds like it should be crooned on the stage of an Edwardian Music Hall, while the Spinning Song is humorous rather than intense. The RSNO gave the music its due and played it with plenty of Victorian warmth, but I found it slightly naff, overegged with schmaltz, and each movement could lose about a minute and be the better off.

None of these accusations could be levelled against Don Juan, which sounds as thrilling today as it did when it bowled over its first audiences in 1888. It’s a thrilling orchestra showpiece and any good orchestra takes it as a chance to show what they can do. Tonight was no different. The sheen on the RSNO string sound was thrilling, be it in the upwardly surging, priapic opening theme or in the more delicate chattering of the quieter moments. The brass were outstanding and the horns rose to their big movement with thrilling élan. Not to be outdone, the winds played with refinement and sparkle in the love music, and Andrew Davis drove the limousine with a clear sense of where he was going, fitting each section comfortably into the wider picture.

After their widely acclaimed recording of 2010, it has been a long awaited pleasure to have the team of Little and Davis reunited with the RSNO for Elgar’s Violin Concerto. The thing that impressed me so much about their recording, namely the rich beauty of the string tone, was all the more vibrant in the flesh, the RSNO strings filling out the great arcs of Elgar’s melodies like the wind in the sails of a ship. They weren’t afraid to take a back seat at key points, however – such as in the finely shaded sound of the slow movement – and the magical accompanied cadenza of the finale sounded extraordinary, as though the soloist had a line to another world. Little knows this music inside out, and it shows. Her virtuosic leaps and runs are still outstanding, especially in the finale, but with Davis she shares a conversational view of the piece. Her first entry, the one phrase in this concerto when a violinist lays bare their vision for the work, grew naturally out of the orchestral tutti, sounding organic and thoughtful rather than defiant. The tone of her playing is glorious, especially in the dark mahogany of her lower register, and the moment where she first introduced the second theme of the slow movement was extraordinary; rich and lustrous. Davis, who conducts British music better than almost anyone around these days, lived up to his reputation as one of the world’s leading Elgarians.

Simon Thompson