Ravel, Saint-Saëns, Falla: Antonio Meneses (cello) Maria Toledo (cantaora), Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Josep Pons (conductor), Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh, 13.12.2014 (SRT)
Ravel: Le Tombeau de Couperin
Saint-Saëns: Cello Concerto No. 1
Falla: El Sombrero de tres picos, Suite No. 1; El Amor Brujo
Even if I think it sounds better on a solo piano, I can just about be won over to Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin if it’s played with such style on an orchestra of this size. The rippling oboe of the opening and the throwaway rhythms of the Forlane and Riguadon sounded great when bandied around by the musicians of the SCO, and I also liked the way Josep Pons used the slower sections to bring out some of the work’s intense melancholy, which can be skirted over in some performances. Antonio Meneses brought a similar sense of style to Saint-Saëns’ first cello concerto. He really made the instrument sing, particularly in its stunningly rich lower register, and both he and Pons tapped into the work’s rich vein of lyricism, even in the outer sections, for all their busyness.
For all that, though, the most exciting thing on the programme was hearing them do Falla. I imagine this put everybody out of their comfort zone: Pons isn’t used to working with the SCO, and Falla isn’t a composer they’ve done very often; but exciting results can come from such circumstances, and so it proved tonight with an exciting, throbbing performance of both works that pulsed with Latin life and gleamed with Mediterranean sunlight. Most exciting in both cases was the dynamic sense of rhythm: in both Sombrero and Amor the rhythms of the dance were stamped all over it, be it the alluring dance of the Miller’s wife or the vibrant fandango rhythms of the scene of the grapes. Likewise, the Ritual Fire Dance was full of power, but so, too, was the much more suggestive love scene that followed it. A testament to how successful they were was that I found myself involuntarily jiggling my shoulders in my seat: high praise in repertoire like this!
The playing was excellent, too, with sultry runs on the winds depicting the heady Mediterranean air and some knockout solos, most notably the oboe and the marvellous comic turn from the bassoon representing the mayor in Sombrero. The strings could cut across all those rhythms with all the jagged power they needed, but also play with heart-stopping delicacy in numbers like Amor’s Magic Circle. My only question mark hung over the singing of Maria Toledo, which was unlike anything else I’ve heard in a classical concert hall. Her tone was husky to the point of rasping and, while full or Latin passion and physical movements, her voice seemed to have a tenuous relationship with tuning which I found rather surprising. I’m told that she is one of the Spain’s finest exponents of Flamenco singing, though, so no doubt by those standards (of which I am wholly ignorant) she was very good indeed.