The Start of Stéphane Denève’s Farewell to the RNSO Mixes Excitement and Subtlety

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Debussy, Barber, Stravinsky: James Ehnes (violin), Royal Scottish National Orchestra, Stéphane Denève (conductor), Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 4.5.2012 (SRT)

Debussy: Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune
Barber: Violin Concerto
Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring

This year marks both the 150th anniversary of Debussy’s birth and Stéphane Denève’s final year as Music Director of the RSNO. Under his tenure the orchestra has become particularly well known for its interpretations of French music and they’ve been performing Debussy’s complete orchestral works all season. (They’ve also recorded them for Chandos in a new CD released just this week.) It’s a fitting culmination to the series to end it with the most famous and, perhaps, influential of all Debussy’s works. Nowadays we can easily forget how revolutionary the Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune was when it was first heard, but a good performance such as this one reconnects the audience all over again with the strange, psychic, almost surreal world of Debussy’s tonal textures. The impressionistic sound world radiates and shimmers with the RSNO, who have benefited from the expertise of playing and recording all the other works too. The lustrous, seductive flute solo retained an air of danger, almost decadence, and the orchestra seemed to quiver on the edge of mezzo piano for the whole length of the work, searching for some sort of resolution but, like Mallarmé’s faun, never quite finding it.

Barber’s Violin Concerto gives us Romanticism of a very different order; old school and warm where Debussy is exploratory and nebulous. It helps when it is played by James Ehnes, a violinist of the very highest order. His technique is flawless and often breathtaking (he showcased it in encores of two of Paganini’s Caprices) but I love the simplicity of his playing style, direct and unfussy, refusing to hog the limelight. He plays with modest brilliance, a flawless line of melody gushing from his instrument, most impressive of all when the violin finally gets round to playing the main theme of the second movement, played here with all the deep richness of mahogany. It was very much a shared triumph, though, with just as much beauty and skill coming from the orchestra, particularly the woodwind section in the lovely second subject or, of course, the solo oboe that opens the slow movement.

Any conductor who takes on The Rite has to make a choice about how to tackle it: do you create an impression in all its power, or do you focus on the detail and bring out each individual aspect? Denève came close to assimilating the two approaches. In his hands The Rite seems to be focused on its death-ridden finale right from the start. Those gnarled, sinuous wind phrases that open the work sounded pale and emaciated, for all the scale of the playing, and the work seemed set on a steady trajectory towards the catastrophe of the final dance. En route, however, we were treated to playing of extraordinary subtlety in the midst, most especially at the opening of Part Two where the Mystic Circles were played with almost forensic precision, Denève eliciting remarkable clarity out of the texture. Present throughout was the constant, thumping sense of rhythm that drives the music on its headlong path towards its climax. Denève kept his foot on the pedal for the most cathartic moments, increasing the adrenaline levels for the big orchestral climaxes, but he opened out when necessary and controlled the frequent tricky changes of tempo with the skill of a musician whose eye was always on the music’s ultimate trajectory. That end, when it came, was punctuated with passages of such staccato violence that the music seemed fit to burst, as it almost did in the final crash. How thrilling to have The Rite and the Prélude on the same programme, two works that did so much to influence not just the music of their time but so much of the music that was to follow them.

One week to go. Denève bows out next weekend with MacMillan, Richard Strauss and Ravel. It promises to be quite a finish.

The concert was broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 and can be heard here on BBC iPlayer until Friday 11th May.

Simon Thompson