François Leleux and the SCO Make the Case for Serenades

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Wolf, Dvořák, Brahms: Scottish Chamber Orchestra / François Leleux (oboe/director), Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh, 28.3.2019. (SRT)

François Leleux (c) Thomas Kost

Wolf – Italian Serenade

Dvořák – Serenade in D minor

Brahms – Serenade No.1

What exactly makes a serenade, and what sets it apart from, say, a symphony? Is it the scale (hardly if, like Brahms’s first, it contains six hefty movements), or the mood (can’t be if you consider the seriousness of Dvorak’s) or the tone (unlikely when you consider the chameleonic quality of Wolf’s)?

There is no better time to consider such questions than when you have three in the one programme, especially when they’re led by so thoughtful a collaborator as François Leleux. After scoring a huge hit last year, he has been a regular artist with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra since – this is his fourth concert with them this season – and he is a joy to watch, as well as to listen to.

His party piece is to conduct while playing the oboe, something he has dazzled Edinburgh audiences with before. He didn’t quite do that tonight, but he directed Dvořák’s wind serenade from the principal’s position with all the choreographic precision that we have come to expect from him, ducking and weaving in so visually entrancing a manner that you scarcely notice how effectively he’s holding the music together.

That Dvořák was a great success, the sound built from the ground up and anchored in some sensational bass tone produced by a cello, double bass and contrabassoon. This gave the music a tone so earthy you could almost feel the soil beneath your fingernails, and it meant that the other instruments were liberated to spiral through their higher lines in so free a manner that it sometimes sounded like improvising. Taking the lead were principal oboe (Leleux) and clarinet (SCO principal Maximiliano Martín) who stood at opposite ends of their half-moon setup, but seemed to be joined telepathically as they either sparred for the musical ideas or finished one another’s sentences. Wolf’s Italian Serenade, on the other hand, allowed the string players to bring Tchaikovskian richness to the texture. The saucy atmosphere, meanwhile, was redolent of fin-de-siècle Paris, and had a folksy, sunlit feel that was very appealing.

Strings and winds came together for Brahms’s First Serenade, surely his most under-rated orchestral work. Brahms’s reluctance to get going with symphonies is well known, but we would hear this masterpiece so much more often if only he had called it a symphony instead! It is certainly worth it. The first movement positively overflows with youthful vigour, rapturously so in the first big tutti, and there is real seriousness (symphonic-ness, even!) to the musical argument. The spidery strings of the Scherzo put me in mind of the titanic second movement of Piano Concerto No.2, while the slow movement goes to all sorts of unusual and unexpected places, featuring some gorgeous wind playing en route. The bucolic minuets and freewheeling second Scherzo are bonuses on the way to a finale which is very nearly the equal to that of the Second Symphony.

With performances as upbeat and well considered as these, this made for a marvellous musical journey. I am not sure I’m any clearer about exactly what makes a serenade, but I hugely enjoyed being allowed to think so hard about the question.

Simon Thompson

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