Charismatic Ray Chen Focuses on the Big Picture in Lalo

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Berlioz, Lalo, Brahms: Ray Chen (violin), Royal Scottish National Orchestra, Peter Oundjian (conductor), Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 22.5.2015 (SRT)

Berlioz: Le carnival romain
Lalo:   Symphonie espagnole
Brahms: Symphony No. 2

Lalo’s Symphonie espagnole is yet another piece that demonstrates that, when it comes to the Nineteenth Century, no one does Spanish better than the French.  Not quite a concerto, and certainly not a symphony, it falls into the halfway territory that condemns it to only rare concert appearances.  Nor is it particularly full of fireworks: it’s certainly showy in places but I imagine that most soloists who want to strut their stuff will find more consistently virtuosic vehicles elsewhere.  That does mean, however, that it’s never less than musical, and its Spanish colour gives it a lot of convincing flavour, especially in the Seguidilla second movement and rumbustious Rondo finale.

In many ways, we’re lucky that Ray Chen sees it as worthy of his time, because he played it brilliantly, and demonstrated amply why he is so highly spoken of in the up-and-coming scene.  His expertly coiffed, carefully coutured persona struck a charismatic, almost defiant presence on stage.  He definitely has something about him, though I’m still not sure exactly what.  He stood stock still while playing, but an energy pulses through him, making his playing intensely focused and intrinsically musical, never indulging in showing off for its own sake.  His approach was sweepingly lyrical and very big-picture focused, but also wonderfully precise in places, bringing everything excitingly to life, especially the dark song of the Andante.  He’s definitely one to watch, and there was already ample evidence of groupies in the audience.

Naturally in a piece like that, your focus tends to be on the soloist, but that’s not to underplay the warm, Mediterranean feel that the orchestra brought to their half of the deal, and they also served up a sparkling performance of Berlioz’ Roman Carnival to open the concert.  Peter Oundjian’s Brahms was problematic, though, and the second symphony got better as it went on.  The great arch of the slow movement sounded marvellous, growing through its dark heart to its serene conclusion, and the different sections of the finale interacted very well, the winsome lilt of the second theme offsetting the manic energy of the opening.  Something didn’t quite work with the first movement, though.  The sense of line and overarching structure, so important in Brahms, didn’t quite gel.  Again and again it felt as though we were being introduced to the music a section at a time, with little sense of the long line or the movement’s overall purpose, and at times Oundjian seemed to be geeing the orchestra along rather than letting the music breathe.  The development never quite caught fire in the way that it should, and the feeling of the outer sections was contented rather than radiant.  Only the orchestra’s confident colour stopped it from sounding anodyne.

Simon Thompson

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