RSNO Denève

Pelléas et Mélisande – Suite
Violin Concerto No.2
Symphony No.2 in D, Op.73

Frank Peter Zimmermann (violin)

Royal Scottish National Orchestra
Stéphane Denève

Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 4 February, 2005
Venue: Usher Hall, Edinburgh

A hugely auspicious beginning for Stéphane Denève, the RSNO’s young and charismatic French Music Director Designate, in his first concert since the appointment. The Auld Alliance between Scotland and France dates back more than 700 years and following a few well-chosen words – Denève seems an excellent communicator – there was a tangible ripple of warmth from the audience which included the French Consul General and music critics from Paris. The story of Denève’s appointment is the stuff of legend. In 2003, on the strength of one concert, orchestra and management took a collective deep breath, decided they wanted him and, after a follow-up concert, he was appointed. On the evidence of this concert, first instincts were resoundingly right.

The RSNO plays for Denève with palpable enthusiasm, a band transformed. Equally importantly, Denève’s musical sympathies seem wide enough to sustain the job of Music Director. One only hopes that he is not tempted away by one of the American orchestras (his next concerts are with the Los Angeles Philharmonic). This concert displayed intelligent yet bold planning. Denève’s choice of Fauré was instructive. This is music at once atmospheric, subtle and tinged with half-lights. In Denève’s hands the Prélude was notable for a Gallic combination of restraint and passion, the lower end of the dynamic scale carefully observed, yet with real intensity. The Suite’s middle movements, including the well-known Sicilienne, is music which can all-too-easily sound bland; from Denève’s the distinctively characterised motion of Fauré’s invention was perfectly caught, the Sicilienne full of light and shade, its varying timbres precisely observed. The final movement, Death of Mélisande, was rightly greeted by the most profound silence at the close and made clear Denève’s ability to persuade an orchestra to fill silences with meaning.

Even finer was the Bartók. With its many volatile switches of mood and an abundance of technical difficulties for the soloist and orchestra, this concerto is a minefield. Frank Peter Zimmermann, Denève and the orchestra met the challenge head-on with combined excellence of playing with the added ingredient of raw excitement. Like Székely, the work’s dedicatee, Zimmermann may not have the largest of sounds but his intonation is remarkably assured and he uses his bowing arm with real intelligence. The orchestra was with him all the way, its slightly astringent sound and crunchy, heavy brass ideally suited to this viscerally exciting music.

After this, the Brahms (with no first movement repeat) was not quite on the same exalted level. Denève is anything but a time-beater, concentrating instead on line, dynamics and timbre. Occasionally he takes a little too much for granted on the part of the orchestra. For instance, despite a finely played horn solo at the first movement’s close, there was, then, a momentary lapse of ensemble from the strings – but how much better this than studied perfection. The two middle movements were both profoundly satisfying, the third movement Allegretto touching a deeper vein of autumnal melancholy than is customary, its final bar suspended in mid-air for an instant longer than usual. The finale culminated in a fine blaze of sound but, as in the first movement, a greater depth of string sound would have been welcome – that will doubtless come as this exciting partnership develops.

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