RSNO Ends Season with Nicola and Good King Hal

 United KingdomUnited Kingdom Ravel, Vaughan Williams, Saint-Saëns, Walton/Palmer: Nicola Benedetti (violin), Cal MacAninch (narrator), RSNO Chorus, RSNO Junior Chorus, Royal Scottish National Orchestra / Peter Oundjian (conductor), Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 31.5.2013. (ST)

Ravel: Alborada del gracioso
Vaughan Williams: The Lark Ascending
Saint-Saëns: Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso
Walton/Palmer: Henry V: A Shakespeare Scenario

Most orchestras agree that ending your season needs something a little special, and the RSNO’s effort tonight was certainly that with a superstar soloist, a one-off actor and the whole RSNO family on stage to end the season in style. The concert also started with a bang with Ravel’s Alborado, which had plenty of crash-bang-wallop sitting next to playing of real delicacy and wit, especially a knockout bassoon solo that had bags of character.

Nicola Benedetti was also on hand to lend a touch of star quality to Saint-Saëns’ Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso. She played the main theme with a lovely touch of swagger but without ever approaching vulgarity, showing how much of a showman she could be. There was plenty of Mediterranean colour and rhythm on hand, and Benedetti was dazzling in the roulades and double-stops that accompanied the final statement of the main theme. While I’ve never liked The Lark Ascending (never was the “cowpat” criticism of Vaughan Williams more apt) even I am prepared to acknowledge the beautiful cantabile quality to Benedetti’s playing and to admire the way the violin line managed to unfold in one continuous, seamless, long-breathed line. Even more impressive, though, was the sound coming from the orchestral strings, a phenomenal sense of stillness that just quivered on the edge of silence.

Henry V: A Shakespeare Scenario is an arrangement by Christopher Palmer of Walton’s music for Olivier’s famous film, integrated with some speeches from the play to contextualise the music. It’s a little random in places, but generally it works pretty well, and it certainly created the right sense of occasion to bring the season to an end with a bang. Often the narrative helped to contextualise and enliven Walton’s score. The Tudor pastiche, for example, sounds more sensible when it is accompanied by the Chorus’s opening speech, and the Passacaglia for the death of Falstaff (beautifully played here) sounds all the more moving when you hear it after Hal’s speech of rejection. Oddly, though, the two most famous speeches of the play (“Once more unto the breech” and “We few, we happy few”) have no musical accompaniment whatsoever, at least until their final words, and so sound oddly out of joint with the musical score. I wonder if this was out of a (noble but misplaced) reverence for the text? Either way, the RSNO threw themselves into the battle scenes with aplomb and created a resounding climax for the finale, but were even more affecting for Falstaff’s death or for Bardolph’s tender farewell to Mistress Quickly. Cal MacAninch did a good job in the rather thankless role of the narrator, not quite avoiding sounding histrionic at the climaxes but managing to remain evocative on a stage where he had no other actors to interact with. The RSNO choruses sounded great too, evoking Elizabethan London and the French Court in their wordless early moments, while thundering effectively for the final hymn of thanks.

Simon Thompson