Royal Scottish National Orchestra New Season

Flourish with Fireworks, Op.22
The Way to Castle Yonder – pot-pourri for orchestra from the opera ‘Higglety Pigglety Pop!’, Op.21a
Piano Concerto No.24 in C minor, K491
Scheherazade – Symphonic Suite, Op.35

Lars Vogt (piano)

Royal Scottish National Orchestra
Stéphane Denève

Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 2 October, 2009
Venue: Usher Hall, Edinburgh

Stéphane Denève. Photograph: J Henry FairThe opening concert of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra’s new season – Stéphane Denève’s fifth – brought as eclectic an assortment of pieces. The two by Oliver Knussen served as an hors d’oeuvre reflecting Denève’s commitment to contemporary music but were followed by two of evergreens of the repertoire. Flourish with Fireworks was written as a celebratory opener for Michael Tilson Thomas’s first season as principal conductor of the LSO and a conscious homage to Stravinsky’s own Fireworks, even sharing the same musical pattern. Like much celebratory music, this brief four-minute piece is eminently forgettable. Far more interesting is ‘The Way to Castle Yonder’, three continuously-played short pieces culled from Knussen’s Maurice Sendak-inspired opera “Higglety Pigglety Pop!”, well-written music scored for a relatively small orchestra with strong echoes of Ravel’s Mother Goose. Both works received conspicuously well-prepared and polished performances.

Lars VogtMozart’s C minor Piano Concerto has received many memorable performances in the Usher Hall, notably from Curzon and Szell with the Cleveland Orchestra in 1968 and Alfred Brendel’s farewell Edinburgh Festival performance with Charles Mackerras with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra in 2007. Although not quite in this league, Lars Vogt is a fine Mozartean with a strong sense of classical style, on this occasion giving us Mozart with a Beethovenian slant, the music viewed with the hindsight of Beethoven’s C minor example (Piano Concerto No.3). With a fairly full string complement, there was a certain grandeur to this account which emphasised the demonic Mozart, the world of “Don Giovanni”. Most memorable however were the quieter moments at the heart of the first movement during which Vogt managed to create the illusion of the music pausing and holding its breath before once more moving forward to its tense uneasy close. Denève and the RSNO were solicitous partners throughout but a degree of extra polish in some of the wind playing would not have come amiss.

Scheherazade is undoubtedly the best-known of all the many Russian oriental fantasies of the late-19th century – perhaps one day someone will pair it with Liapunov’s Hashish – and on this occasion it received a performance so fresh as to make one fall in love with it all over again. This was due in no small measure to a quite exceptionally characterful and secure account of the violin part from RSNO’s guest leader, Mia Cooper (how suitable that the role of Scheherazade should be taken by a woman!).

However Rimsky-Korsakov’s Suite is also a good indicator of an orchestra’s health, the many wind solos enabling one to judge the quality of the principals whilst the work’s big moments cry out for an amplitude of string sound which is seldom realised. On this evidence the RSNO is at the top of its game with notable contributions from Emmanuel Laville, first oboe, and Katherine Bryan, principal flute; and the sheer power and beauty of the RSNO’s string playing in all sections – secure violins above the stave, powerful violas, and really eloquent cellos and double basses in ‘The Young Prince and the Young Princess’ was a revelation. Denève’s way with the score was remarkably patient, allowing its overwhelming climaxes to build naturally in the outer movements, yet giving the bassoon soloist complete latitude in ‘The Tale of the Kalendar Prince’. One false string entry and a couple of minor horn fluffs aside, this was an absolutely thrilling account which recaptured all that visceral excitement one experienced on first hearing this work. Like Proust this was undoubtedly a case of Time Regained.

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