The Sir Alexander Gibson Memorial Concert

Don Juan, Op.20
Cello Concerto in E minor, Op.85
Bacchus et Ariane

Ralph Kirshbaum (cello)

Royal Scottish National Orchestra
Stéphane Denève

Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 27 January, 2006
Venue: Usher Hall, Edinburgh

Alexander Gibson was 33 when he became Music Director of the Scottish National Orchestra. Stéphane Denève has taken over the orchestra, now Royal, at the same age. Both conductors share a passion for musical exploration. Under Gibson I was fortunate to hear complete symphony cycles of Henze (or at least those then written), Dvořák, Rachmaninov and Sibelius. On this occasion, Denève led a rare complete performance of Roussel’s ballet Bacchus et Ariane.

If the ghost of Sir Alex were hovering above the Usher Hall one suspects he would have been amazed and gratified at the power and amplitude of the RSNO’s strings at the climax of Don Juan, and the sheer panache of its opening. Equally impressive was the subtle woodwinds lead into the string theme. The extended oboe soliloquy received the most sensitive treatment from guest principal Vincent Tizon. Perhaps Denève rather over-egged the pause at the close but it was highly dramatic and, in context, it worked superbly.

Ralph Kirshbaum first played Elgar’s Cello Concerto with Gibson and the SNO in December 1978 (on that occasion it was framed by Nielsen’s Espansiva and Inextinguishable symphonies!), and he recorded it with them shortly thereafter for Chandos; a distinguished version. Now in his late-50s, Kirshbaum plays the concerto superbly and brings to it all those qualities that make him such a great chamber-music player. This is not to imply understatement – for his tone is firm and strong – more that he treats the concerto as chamber music writ large, avoiding histrionics and allowing the orchestra its say.

The opening rocking theme hit an ideal tempo, the scherzo was a true Allegro molto, fluid and volatile but avoiding a speeding ticket, whilst the Adagio was completely sincere and unaffected. The finale’s opening measures briefly sustained the slow movement’s introspective mood, whilst the improvisatory closing pages sounded more Schumannesque than usual. Denève’s accompaniment was remarkably fluid and sympathetic.

The icing on the cake was the Roussel. Roussel and Denève happen to share the same hometown, Tourcoing near Lille (Denève recounted that he passed Roussel’s house each day on his way to school). The performance was demonstrably a labour of love by all concerned.

It is important to know the story of the ballet and very sensibly Roussel’s own scene-by-scene description in the score was projected on a screen behind the orchestra.

The action takes place on Naxos whence Theseus and Ariadne have landed after the latter’s encounter with the Minotaur – vividly described in musical flashback. The god Bacchus appears and interrupts their celebrations, puts Ariadne to sleep on a rock, disposes of her companion and his Stravinskian dance with which Act One closes contains echoes of Stravinsky’s slightly earlier Apollon musagète. Act Two opens with a calmly beautiful Prelude featuring an extended viola solo, superbly played by John Harrington. Ariadne awakes and realising she has been deserted attempts to cast herself from a cliff only to be saved by Bacchus. Their lips meet, she drinks from the Golden Chalice and the ballet culminates in a frenzied Bacchanale as Bacchus crowns Ariadne with a diadem of stars. Denève powered the music to an ecstatic conclusion.

Indeed the whole performance was remarkable for its flexibility and panache. Seldom does one hear a non-repertoire piece realised with such confidence and edge-of-seat excitement.

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