Musical Perfection from “Finest French Orchestra North of Calais”

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Franck, Saint-Saëns, Fauré, Ravel: Daniel Müller-Schott (cello), Royal Scottish National Orchestra, Gilbert Varga (conductor), Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 06.02.2015 (SRT)

Franck: Les Éolides
Saint-Saëns:  Cello Concerto No. 1
Fauré: Elégie
Ravel: Ma mère l’oye (Mother Goose)
 La Valse


In the days when Stephane Denève was their music director, Richard Morrison of The Times described the RSNO as “the finest French orchestra north of Calais.”  I was reminded a bit of that tonight during Les Éolides with its gossamer-light, shimmering strings, so weightless as to be almost transparent.  In fact, tonight’s programme was proof that the orchestra’s proficiency in French repertoire goes deeper than depending solely on Denève’s leadership: they are masters at it under other batons too.  Gilbert Varga, who I hadn’t come across before, showed a mostly sure touch with a persuasive lilt and an ability to make the bar lines when he needed to.  The orchestra responded in kind with playing that glittered like a jewel being held up to the light.

That was brilliantly evident in Ma mère l’oye. If the strings impressed me most in the Franck then it was the winds that were most appealing here.  The solos in Sleeping Beauty’s opening Pavane were full of wistful nostalgia, and the clarinet and bassoon that played the parts of Beauty and the Beast saw their lines as acting a role, not just notes on a page.  Best of all was the orientalism of Laideronette, gleaming and bright from winds and percussion, fully in step with the magic of the piece.  Only La Valse struck me as a little false.  It was brilliantly played and dazzlingly beautiful in places, but Varga’s emphasis on the beauty meant that the final catastrophe came as something of a surprise – not so much a culmination as an out-of-keeping exclamation – and so the ending felt oddly tacked on rather than shocking.

No danger of superficiality with Daniel Müller-Shott on the cello, though it took me a while to tune in to his sound.  The tone of his instrument (or was it his style of playing?) was quite astonishingly chocolaty; so sweet as to be almost glutinous, almost a little muffled at times.  That carried great benefits in the lower registers, but the opening flourish was indistinct, as if too concerned with effect over substance.  He came into his own with the slower second subject, though, which suited his sound brilliantly, and I loved the episode in the central Allegretto when the cello’s long-bowed slow theme sits alongside the dainty orchestral minuet.  He also took a more  thoughtful tone with the finale’s slow second theme, which sounded both meditative and communicative at once.  Acrobatics were back for the final flourish, but the dispelled again for Fauré’s beautiful Elégie which seemed to coarse with songful lyricism and generated a power all of its own.

Simon Thompson

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