RSNO Fantastique

Ravel
Mother Goose – Suite
Szymanowski
Symphonie concertante (Symphony No.4)
Berlioz
Symphonie fantastique, Op.14

Piotr Anderszewski (piano)

Royal Scottish National Orchestra
Stéphane Denève


Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 4 August, 2006
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Having previously conducted “Così fan tutte” for Royal Opera, Stéphane Denève came to this Prom to make what was probably his London concert debut. Bringing two works (the Berlioz and Ravel) that he conducted as a guest of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra before being offered the position of Music Director, Denève has consolidated a strong relationship with his orchestra after just one season.

A tall man of imposing frame, Denève reminds of photos of Otto Klemperer in his physical heyday (Kroll Opera and Los Angeles Philharmonic) and he has a demonstrative if lucid conducting style that achieves vivid and committed results. Denève also brings a refined sensibility to his music-making. This was especially evident in the Ravel, an expressive account that really appreciated Ravel’s watchmaker’s craft and in which a translucent and variegated orchestral response sucked the listener into the deepest recesses of the score. With some eloquent solos, daringly hushed pianissimos, and a collective fastidiousness, there was much to compel and impress here.

Karol Szymanowski (1882-1937) composed his Symphony No.4 in 1932 and, as pianist, was responsible for most of the early performances. Neither concerto nor symphony, the work is difficult to categorise, and while intermittently attractive, it doesn’t necessarily add up. Atmospheric it certainly is, and volatile – ranging from picturesque to eruptive, with much that is urbane; earthy rhythms and sweet lyricism sit side-by-side if not always achieving a whole, and the large orchestra can sometimes be over-scored for. A compact work, with a cadenza for the pianist in the ‘traditional’ place towards the end of the first movement, it was the flute, viola and piano ‘trio sonata’ that opens the second movement that stood out (with lovely solos from, respectively, Katherine Bryan and John Harrington) and some appropriately rough-edged jazzy ‘improvisations’ from the winds in the finale.

Piotr Anderszewski was in perfect balance throughout (always audible while appreciating the ‘obbligato’ role the piano often performs in this work) and played with a dedication that suggests this is music that requires further listens to get to grips with it. Denève and the RSNO brought a range of sound to the music, if not always the sort of familiarity that would have delivered some exposed passages with greater security – but a big impression was made.

The Berlioz was, overall, something of a curate’s egg. Although Denève is clearly a thoughtful musician (his layout of the strings with antiphonal violins and cellos left-centre is one testimony to this), there are times when his conducting seems a little impromptu – not always ‘there’ for his musicians – and while he gets a vital response, some ragged edges were evident and seemed to reflect those occasional moments when Denève gets distracted.

Such spontaneity brought its own rewards, at times, and this account of Berlioz’s ‘dreamscape’ certainly didn’t lack for expression and potency; orchestral balance was clear-cut if sometimes too refined at times. In some respects, Denève’s flexible response to this music reminded of an illustrious French predecessor of his, Charles Munch, yet without the ‘internal demonism’ that informed his approach. Leaving out the exposition repeats in the first and four movements (the latter, ‘March to the Scaffold’, was rampaged through to nullifying effect and only served to prove that the RSNO brass section could ‘keep up’), Denève led an account that at times seemed glib, the second movement ‘Valse’ being rather twee. The ‘Witches’ Sabbath’ finale – with the bells (somewhere offstage) being neither strident nor doom-laden enough – was rather ‘empty’ of description.

Best of all – allowing that the ‘distantly answering’ oboe was not far enough away – and that the thunder at the close (timpani, four players) lacked threat – was the pivotal ‘Scène aux champs’ third movement, spaciously taken and with a breathing ebb and flow that lived the moment without compromising continuity, and with John Cushing delivering a clarinet solo that rather stole the show.

If greater identification with the ‘originality’ of Berlioz’s score might have been anticipated (it was too much of a showpiece at times), there is no doubt that Denève has the musicians on his side and that the potential for great things to happen is very much in place.

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