Symphony No.5 in D, Op.107 (Reformation)
Symphony No.1 in D

Royal Scottish National Orchestra
Stéphane Denève

Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 14 October, 2005
Venue: Usher Hall, Edinburgh

Wake up Scotland! This third programme in Stéphane Denève’s first concerts since his appointment as Chief Conductor was a triumphant vindication of the Royal Scottish National’s confidence in him; and well-worth the 400-mile hike North!

Indicative of the new era, Denève has re-seated the orchestra with antiphonal violins and – just as importantly – the double basses are positioned to the left on risers, both of which add a new depth and lustre to the string sound. Not everything in the garden is yet perfect, as was obvious from occasional moments of frailty, but what joy to hear this orchestra playing to its limit.

There was a very great deal that was right about both these performances. Sadly, the Edinburgh audience has yet to catch up with what is taking place, the Usher Hall being only two-thirds full. The Mendelssohn was a courageous choice, in that it wasn’t either the ‘Italian’ or ‘Scottish’ symphonies that was chosen. Written to commemorate the 300th-anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation, Mendelssohn’s Fifth Symphony is performed less than it deserves. (The RSNO last played it in 1976.) The gentle ‘Dresden Amen’ that opens the work – also used by Wagner in “Parsifal” – flowered gradually on the strings; what was notable was the patience and maturity with which Denève then built the stormy allegro that follows, reserving maximum power for the movement’s real climax: conducting of character and thoughtfulness. The delicious scherzo positively tripped along at just the right tempo, whilst the slow movement’s affectionately shaped string cantilena became an orchestral ‘Song without Words’. Finesse and stylistic acuity are commodities in short supply in today’s world. Denève has them both and the ability to communicate them. Taken at a leisurely pace, the finale, ushered in a by a sensitively played flute solo, was conspicuous for its restraint and allowed the building of natural and unforced climaxes.

Even more impressive was the Mahler. It would be possible to mention occasional lapses in execution, but that would be to miss the point. Mahler’s First Symphony is all about arrival and departure, and under Denève these moments really stood out: the first movement’s climactic moment held back, then unleashed to maximum effect; the final measures of the finale’s extended string theme seemingly held for an eternity before the music crawls painfully out of the pit. And therein lies the rub. In this account, nothing was overstated, so it really was about creating an illusion.

The other distinctive characteristic was attention to dynamics; what a difference it makes when the strings find a different tone for a passage marked pp – such as the gentle folksong at the heart of third movement funeral march – or when the chirruping sf clarinet really sounds like a cuckoo at the work’s outset. There was also the level of artless integration achieved within movements, intrinsically, particularly in the Funeral March, the Klezmer episode underplayed (such episodes can jar in less sympathetic hands), the whole caught on a miraculous web of sound.

This was the most auspicious of occasions. As an expatriate Scot I shall be making many more trips North of the Border, for the Royal Scottish National Orchestra has not played better in my lifetime, and this is one of the most exciting orchestra-conductor partnerships around.

  • Broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on Monday 17 October at 7.30
  • RSNO

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