United Kingdom MacMillan, R Strauss, Ravel: Royal Scottish National Orchestra, Stéphane Denève (conductor), Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 11.5.2012 (SRT)
Strauss: Till Eulenspiegel
Ravel: Daphnis et Chloé (complete)
All good things must come to an end, and so it is that, after seven remarkably successful years, Stéphane Denève tonight conducted his final concert as Music Director of the RSNO. Under his leadership the orchestra has evolved into a crack team of virtuosi, capable of looking any of the great bands of Europe in the eye, and their comfort with such a huge diversity of repertoire is perhaps his finest legacy to them. Tonight’s programme was carefully designed to show that off. MacMillan’s Britannia is an orchestral fantasy based on themes associated with Britain. The orchestra is given extraordinary treatments of everything from “Knees up, Mother Brown” to a lopsided version of “God Save the Queen”, together with some very British noises such as a quacking duck, a motor horn and a referee’s whistle. The opening bars unleash merry chaos, played with virtuosic precision, before yielding to a more serious, contemplative section which sees the work through to its very unsettled conclusion. The brass were given the most fireworks, but the deeply soulful string playing in the middle was even more impressive, creating a shimmering bed of sound for the remainder of the music to rest on. Till Eulenspiegel is a link to Germany, where Denève is going next (he’s already Music Director at Stuttgart) and Strauss’s showpiece gave the whole orchestra the chance to shine in its turn. The strings sounded rich and Germanic, revelling in Strauss’s melodies, against perky, upstart winds which seemed to thumb their nose at proceedings at every opportunity. Each episode was shaped lovingly with an eye predominantly to the comedy, and the brass sounded fantastic before being cut off in their prime at the gallows scene.
But it is perhaps in French repertoire that Denève has made his greatest mark. The RSNO is now, probably, the finest ensemble in these islands when it comes to playing French music and, after treating us to so much Debussy this season, it was with Ravel that Denève chose to make his exit. All the gifts that the orchestra have honed under his leadership came to the fore in the great expanse of the complete Daphnis et Chloé, strings that could shimmer radiantly in the love scenes and then give way to brash violence for the pirates’ music, and winds that could colour a character and then ripple magnificently at the start of Part Three. Throughout there was a beautiful colour to the sound, grotesque bassoons and lurid brass in Dorcon’s dance, sensual beauty for the love music of Daphnis and Chloe, but it always came with a wonderful French lilt, almost as with a wink and a smile, reminding us that Ravel is only a few steps away from the world of jazz. Denève himself repeatedly injected special flashes of colour into the music and, when it came to the finale, went hell-for-leather into the Bacchanal, all restraints thrown off for a joyous, blazing, tumultuous end, not just to an extraordinary performance, but to seven great years at the helm. After the final chords the entire Usher Hall rose to its feet for an ovation for a great musician, but also as a sign of the affection in which he has come to be held here. He will be much missed. Au revoir, Stéphane.
Booking is now open for the RSNO’s 2012-13 season, when the orchestra will welcome Peter Oundjian as its new Music Director. For full details go to www.rsno.org.uk