United Kingdom Debussy, MacMillan, Ravel, Strauss: Steven Osborne (piano), Royal Scottish National Orchestra, Stéphane Denève (conductor), Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 8.4.2016. (SRT)
Debussy: Marche écossaise
MacMillan: The Death of Oscar (UK premiere)
Ravel: Piano Concerto for the Left Hand; La Valse
Strauss: Death and Transfiguration
“I’ve missed you!”, said Stéphane Denève from the podium before he began this evening’s concert. We’ve missed him too, but I was surprised by the number of empty seats in the hall, suggesting that Denève returns doesn’t quite have the pulling power as a slogan that many thought and perhaps hinting that, like all healthy relationships, we’d also all moved on.
Denève’s time at the head of the RSNO was a (2005-2012) was a bit of a golden era in the orchestra’s recent past, and he is credited in some quarters with turning around both their fortunes and their artistic standards (back in 2012, one patron told me, perhaps a little hyperbolically, that they were “the worst orchestra in Europe” before he took over). This is the first time he has been back with them since then, and the programme was affectionately tailored to play to a lot of his strengths. It began, as did the first concert in Denève’s final season, with Debussy’s youthful Marche écossaise, preceded by a piper playing the clan melody on which it was based. It was a nice touch, but this concert wasn’t about nostalgia for a lost era: it was high quality music-making for the here-and-now, helped by Denève’s prior knowledge of the RSNO, but not conditional upon it.
After setting up the framework of the Auld Alliance, Denève carried on with a premiere of a piece linked to two old friends. James MacMillan’s Death of Oscar was inspired by a design from Scottish sculptor Alexander Stoddart of an epic sculpture of the eponymous mythic hero, to be carved from a granite cliff in the west of Scotland. MacMillan and Denève have worked together before, and Stoddart has also executed a bronze bust of Denève that graces the Usher Hall foyer, so it’s a neat fit for Denève to be giving the piece’s UK premiere. It also helps that the piece was co-commissioned by the Stuttgart Radio Symphony, Denève’s destination after Scotland. MacMillan’s piece tends to focus on the great battle that brought about Oscar’s death. There’s a sense of massiveness at the piece’s opening, with big percussion and low brass rumblings against high, lamenting strings. The actual battle music itself I found surprisingly bright, even a little light-hearted in its opening sections, but after a beautifully songful cor anglais solo as Oscar’s lament, the ending is even more massive, putting an unarguable full stop on both the piece and Oscar’s life. Like his Little Mass, however, it’s an accessible piece that’s instantly appealing. Is MacMillan going through a new phase in his work, I wonder?
The performance of Tod und Verklärung showed that Denève has picked up a German accent while working in Stuttgart. He thinks in big spans, shaping Strauss’s paragraphs with a long view that the orchestra follows him in. The brass climaxes of the death-struggles were razor-sharp, and the repeated iterations of the Transfiguration theme at the end seemed repeatedly to rise and rise until they crowned the sound with a chorale-like intensity.
It was the Ravel that was both the most stylish and the most nostalgic, however. Denève transformed the orchestra’s reputation for French music, and his La Valse felt like a smiling wave from a happy past. The sweep and charm of the performance was beyond question – what wonderful tone from those muted violins when they first entered! – but also the ear for detail, such as those subterranean clarinets that burbled under the primordial soup of the opening. Yes, Denève pulled the tempo all over the place, but he filled the piece with pulsing life that was totally intoxicating. Another long-time collaborator joined him for the concerto, and Steven Osborne was brilliant throughout, especially in the rippling cadenza that makes you marvel that only one hand is playing. Denève the Debussian drew out the pentatonic, almost Asiatic influences on Ravel’s texture that make him so distinctive, but the sound quality was plush and luminous throughout. It was nice to have him back.