Royal Scottish National Orchestra

Bacchus et Ariane – Suite No.2
Piano Concerto No.2 in C minor, Op.18
La mer – three symphonic sketches

Stephen Hough (piano)

Royal Scottish National Orchestra
Stéphane Denève

Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 6 September, 2008
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Stéphane Denève. Photograph: J Henry FairThe Royal Scottish National Orchestra and Stéphane Denève’s annual excursion South of the Border produced an enterprising programme which, for the most part, played to this combination’s considerable strengths.

Given Denève’s penchant for contemporary music, it was wholly apt that the programme should have included Thea Musgrave’s Rainbow. Understandably, too, given that Denève and the RSNO have made something of a speciality of French music that the concert should have been topped and tailed respectively by the Second Suite from Roussel’s Bacchus et Ariane and by an outstanding performance of La mer.

Ironic therefore that the one weak link should have been the Rachmaninov, normally an indestructible sure-fire success. Stephen Hough has made something of a speciality of Rachmaninov – he has recorded all the concertos with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra and gave a memorable reading of Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini with the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra at the Edinburgh International Festival a few years ago.

Stephen HoughHowever, on this occasion despite some memorable touches, especially in the slow movement, this was a reading of the Second Concerto more remarkable for some fine individual touches in the orchestral playing – a glorious horn solo in the opening movement and a perfectly calibrated introduction from the strings to the second – than for anything we heard in the solo part. Hough simply does not command the weight of tone for this work in the vastness of the Royal Albert Hall, frequently struggling to be heard despite the sensitive orchestral accompaniment and afflicted by more than his share of technical problems. Best was the slow movement, poised, withdrawn and marked for once by a most welcome subtlety. Elsewhere there was an affectedly narcissistic slant to this reading, which too readily lost impetus at key moments, for instance in the backwash to the first movement’s climax.

By contrast, the Second Suite from Bacchus et Ariane was nothing if not virile, the closing ‘Bacchanale’ working up an electrifying head of steam. Denève, a native of Tourcoing, Roussel’s hometown, clearly feels this music in his bones, pacing it with total certainty and eliciting a very Gallic blend and finesse. Having now heard the RSNO under all its Music Directors since Walter Susskind, it is self-evident that the orchestra currently boasts an outstanding constellation of wind principals. There was also an exceptionally sensitive viola solo from John Harrington at the work’s gentle opening, ‘Le sommeil d’Ariane’ (Ariane asleep).

Unconsciously reflecting the more than usually atrocious weather which the UK has been suffering at this time, the concert’s second half had a distinctly ‘meteorological’ feel to it, Composed in 1990, Thea Musgrave’s Rainbow, is a 12-minute piece for large orchestra, thoroughly approachable music with occasional overtones of Nielsen; a latter-day counterpart to the Storm in Beethoven’s ‘Pastoral’ Symphony or to one of those great Turner seascapes. Seldom does one hear a contemporary piece delivered with such impact and panache.

Debussy’s La mer is a severe test for any orchestra. Frequently treated as an orchestral showpiece, Denève reminded us that its title also includes the words “three symphonic sketches”. For instance, with restrained dynamics and shimmering percussion touched in with the deftest of hands, the second movement ‘Jeux de vagues’ had a lightness of touch that was almost pointilliste.

In the outer movements what was remarkable was the almost daring certainty with which Denève paced and coloured a work which one thought one knew inside out, taking risks – sounds were frequently suspended almost motionless in the air (the sustained high violins in the finale were so restrained as to be almost inaudible) – but en même temps how wonderfully volatile and alive this reading was. This was the sea in all its moods experienced from the deck of a small boat, une barque sur l’océan, not observed from the safety of the coastline. The RSNO responded with playing of rare commitment and sophistication.

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