Rob Roy Overture
Songs of the Auvergne [selection]
Symphony in D minor
Lisa Milne (soprano)
Royal Scottish National Orchestra
Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey
Reviewed: 24 February, 2012
Venue: Usher Hall, Edinburgh
A French conductor and a Scottish orchestra with a programme perfectly tailored to reflect the so-called “Auld Alliance” between the two countries. In reality César Franck was Belgian but was domiciled in Paris for most of his life, whilst, like Mendelssohn and Donizetti, Berlioz was seized with that Early Romantic fascination for all things Scottish. The ‘odd man out’ might be thought to be Joseph Canteloube’s Songs of the Auvergne, were it not for the fact that the Auvergnats used to be widely seen as tight-fisted grippe sous, the Scots of France.
The evening opened with a fine burst of rare ‘Tartanalia’. Berlioz’s Rob Roy is one of his weakest works, a curious hotchpotch of Scots wha hae wi, some of the music later finding its way, much improved, into Harold in Italy. Written in an effort to gain the Prix de Rome, Berlioz described the original L’Intrada di Rob Roy MacGregor as “long and diffuse” and had the good sense to burn it on his return to Paris. Fortunately – or not – another copy had been lodged with the French Academy. With svelte strings and with a magnificent duet for cor anglais and harp from respectively Zoe Kitson and Pippa Tunnell, Fabien Gabel and the RSNO made the best possible case for it, culminating in a fine blaze of sound.
The Songs of the Auvergne – a collection of folksongs from the Auvergne region arranged by Joseph Canteloube between 1923-1930 – have attracted divas as diverse as Kiri Te Kanawa and Elisabeth Schwarzkopf (who recorded ‘Baïlèro’). The texts are written in the Auvergnat version of Occitan, the original Languedoc. Here we had eight (of thirty) starting with ‘Baïlèro’, very leisurely, with a good oboe, but rather like protracted immersion in a tepid bath. Lisa Milne, fully at ease with roles such as Susanna or Pamina, is an engaging singer with plenty of charm, but despite sensitive accompaniment, her voice was frequently lost in the vastnesses of the Usher Hall. By far the best were ‘Pastourelle’ and the final ‘Uno Jionto Pastoure’ (A Pretty Shepherdess) whose unforced simplicity was deeply affecting.
César Franck’s Symphony, once a staple of the repertoire, now receives all too few performances. Interestingly under Gabel, a one-time winner of the Donatella Flick Conducting Competition, the RSNO brought a very French sensibility and fluidity to the work, avoiding any hint of Germanic heaviness. There was douceur to much of the string-playing and the timbres of much of the winds, notably Katherine Bryan’s elegant, slightly breathy flute. Occasionally Gabel pushed too hard, and initially there was some raucous brass, but the slow movement, taken for once at a genuine Allegretto – with more wonderful cor anglais playing and its fleet-footed central section beautifully touched in – was impressively stylish, and the finale was rambunctious.