Supernova & Resurrection

Supernova [UK premiere]
Symphony No.2 in C minor (Resurrection)

Inger Dam-Jensen (soprano)
Patricia Bardon (mezzo-soprano)

RSNO Chorus

Royal Scottish National Orchestra
Stéphane Denève

Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 29 September, 2006
Venue: Usher Hall, Edinburgh

In a week resonating with extremely fine concerts as the London Symphony Orchestra, London Philharmonic Orchestra, and Philharmonia Orchestra, all opened their winter seasons, the Royal Scottish National Orchestra’s opener stood out for its ambition and above all for its sense of occasion.

With Mahler performances now an everyday occurrence for many of the world’s great metropolitan bands, it is perhaps only with an orchestra such as the RSNO, which does not have that opportunity, that we can hope for this degree of freshness and commitment. Add Stéphane Denève – a conductor who is doing for Scotland what Simon Rattle did for Birmingham – and one has a potent brew.

Not everything Denève does works and this Resurrection was no exception. In trying to follow Mahler’s myriad tempo instructions, especially in the first movement, he can be tempted to over-react (rather like a driver of a large 4 x 4 who underestimates how long it will take to brake or, in Denève’s case, to accelerate) – but, hugely in his favour, he invariably makes a genuine attempt to follow what is written and above all he never loses the thread of the argument so, even where one may disagree with a detail, there is continuity.

The other outstanding feature of this Mahler 2 was its genuinely apocalyptic quality. The sheer heft and sinew generated the RSNO’s re-seated strings at the work’s outset was truly momentous, as were the multi-directional offstage effects in the finale (horns and timpani echoing from behind the Circle, trumpet fanfares resounding from the cavernous spaces to the left and right of the Usher Hall platform). Seldom have these moments in the finale been so effectively realised or seemed so psychologically right – it was as if the Hall and the world around us had acquired an extra dimension. By contrast, the second movement, a Ländler, was given a nostalgic, lazy grace to the arching cello line whilst in ‘Urlicht’ (Primal Light) the excellent, Dublin-born, Patricia Bardon, found exactly the right tone of simple solemnity and also possessed the deep mezzo quality essential for this setting.

The eruption into the finale was of truly cosmic proportions, generating the kind of frisson – ‘shock and awe’ might be a more appropriate description – that one remembers from Klemperer’s performances. So often this movement seems as if it is passing through an endless series of antechambers – a kind of musical equivalent of Purgatory – before briefly reaching Nirvana in the form of Klopstock’s ode. Here, by contrast, it held the listener mesmerised from first note to last. Perhaps the ‘Kriegsmusik’ (War Music) would have had even greater weight at a slower tempo, and perhaps that wonderful soprano Inger Dam-Jensen was not quite at her best. No matter, by the chorus’s first entry there was an unstoppable momentum. Wisely, Denève avoided exaggerated pianissimos here, opting instead for clarity, and there was some notably fine singing from the basses.

Earlier, for good measure (a bit like being offered a double Scotch), came Supernova, an almost equally apocalyptic 15-minute piece by the young French composer Guillaume Connesson. As anyone who has felt awe at the extraordinary pictures now coming back from Deep Space across millions of light-years will know, a Supernova is the event produced when a star, having consumed itself, explodes with a brightness equal to one-hundred-million Suns. Connesson’s piece comprises two linked movements, one inspired by a Kandinsky painting, “Quelques Cercles”, and the other, ‘Pulsating Star’, which might best be described as a requiem. This is music, at once shattering and well-written, which speaks directly to an audience (as does the music of another composer whom Denève features this season, Jennifer Higdon), and it received a performance which must have been everything the composer (who was present) could have wished for.

Other enticing RSNO concerts over the next month include Roussel’s Third Symphony (leavened by Nicola Benedetti playing Mendelssohn’s E minor Concerto) and Dukas’s La Péri plus Florent Schmitt’s La Tragédie de Salomé (which might be courting box-office disaster were it not for the participation in the concert of Felicity Lott, a long-time favourite in Scotland). Later in the season the orchestra is also trying out “Symphonies at Six” with – for example – Nielsen 4 (Inextinguishable) offset by Elgar’s Cello Concerto. There is acute intelligence behind such planning.

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