RSNO/Denève Pathétique

Le tombeau de Couperin
Concerto for oboe and small orchestra
Symphony No.6 in B minor, Op.74 (Pathétique)

Alexei Ogrintchouk (oboe)

Royal Scottish National Orchestra
Stéphane Denève

0 of 5 stars

Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 10 March, 2006
Venue: Usher Hall, Edinburgh

Billed as part of “The Total Denève Series” (that is, sponsored by the French company), this well-planned programme came with the appropriate sobriquet, “performances with energy”.

The first half combined two elegiac works written at the end of the First and Second World Wars respectively. After the horrors which had so immediately preceded their composition, both pieces are neo-classical in spirit, both of them casting a backwards glance to an imagined Golden Age – Ravel to the time of Couperin and Strauss to the world of Mozart. The concert also marked the 30th-anniversary of the ever-modest Edwin Paling’s presence as Leader of the Scottish National Orchestra; these thirty years have seen a huge improvement in the orchestra’s string quality for which Paling must take at least some of the credit.

Last month the orchestra enjoyed a successful trip to Paris. If it goes on playing French music as well as it played Ravel’s homage to friends lost on the battlefields, the RSNO can bid fair to be called the UK’s best French orchestra. Denève’s scaled-down classical orchestra (with divided violins) played the nostalgic four-movement suite that Ravel culled from his six-movement piano version with truly exceptional eloquence and finesse. The woodwinds – especially guest principal oboe Jonathan Dlouhy – produced a level of sophistication and delicacy to match Denève’s deep affinity for this affecting bittersweet music. He characterised each movement with the utmost affection and avoided undue haste in the concluding Rigaudon, bringing to it a relaxed almost playful flexibility.

Alexei Ogrintchouk’s account of Richard Strauss’s Concerto was an absolute showstopper. Ogrintchouk is 27, Russian-born, French-trained, a pupil of Maurice Bourgue, and has progressed rapidly from First Oboe of the Rotterdam Philharmonic to the same position with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. Rich toned but with the widest palette, this was playing of supreme artistry. Like those great Strauss soprano roles there was an unbroken seamless quality akin to “Four Last Songs”, Ogrintchouk’s oboe soaring effortlessly above the orchestral cushion, an accompaniment by turns delicate, warm and virile, with a particularly fine duet with violist John Harrington.

About the Pathétique there has to be mixed feelings, a symphony that contains more than its share of potential pitfalls for conductor and orchestra; not all were negotiated with equal success – in the first movement there was a degree of uncertainty in the sections leading up to ‘thunderclap’ (heralded by an extremely sensitive clarinet solo) and the third movement March was pushed fractionally too hard. Whatever the reservations about interpretative details and minor lapses of execution, there were many outstanding moments – notably the way the opening ‘breathed’ and a finale of utmost intensity and conviction. As the last double bass pizzicato ‘heartbeat’ died away there was, for once, the fully protracted silence indicated in the score.

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