Fresh from the experience of San Francisco, things could only get better. However, my expectations were not high for the Gurzenich Orchestra, after all, they are also the orchestra of Cologne Opera, whom Finn had not overly appreciated in Capriccio. Furthermore, Gabriele Fontana, who was joining the programme with the last minute addition of three Strauss songs, had come in for particular criticism.
But, it's always as well to go in with low expectations, that way it's harder to be disappointed (though not impossible, as anyone who watched Star Wars, Episode Two: Attack of the Clones, can surely attest). I was further aided in that I came fresh from the pub as a colleague had just left, which can't have hurt.
They began with Strauss's Till Eulenspiegel. It was clear for the outset that this was not a first rate orchestra and there were a few too many fluffed notes. The reading too lacked variety, for much of the time too fast and too furious and not enough luxuriating in the richness of Strauss's orchestration. Better was to follow with some newish music: Bernd Alois Zimmermann's Photoptosis. Stenz (the conductor) turned to address the audience and gave us a passionate explanation of the piece that put the programme note to shame. Essentially, and I'm afraid I am not doing his explanation justice, the piece is all about rays of light. In the first section the music captures a vast blue canvas, in the second he shows it up close and in detail, littered with quotes from Beethoven, Bach, Wagner and much more (there are twelve apparently, of which I spotted both from Beethoven's 9th, the Wagner, from Parsifal, and I think possibly the Brandenburg). The third section gives what Stenz described as a moment of calm, based on the idea of light as a wave (sad particle physicists, or those with a smattering of knowledge such as myself, will know that the truth is more complicated and that it is both waves and particles, but the odds are you probably don't want to know that). It builds to a close and mesmerises in a rather Messiaenic way. A wonderfully fresh piece and well played, it clearly helped that the conductor had great enthusiasm for it, though I wonder whether it's the kind of work that doesn't transfer well to the silver disc. Either way it was something of a highlight.
The second half brought us Schumann's 3rd 'Rhenish' symphony. I'm not hugely familiar with Schumann's work, but the third is one of those pieces that is instantly familiar (a little like Mendelssohn's 4th in that regard). The orchestra's playing was somewhat ropey and there was a lack of focus both in comparison to the Bavarians but also to the San Franciscans. But that didn't really matter because they had something much better: passion. The orchestra was brimming over with enthusiasm (perhaps not quite so much so as, say, Barenboim's West-Eastern Divan Orchestra of Arab and Israeli teenagers a couple of years ago but certainly an unusually impressive amount). This more than made up for the flaws in the playing, of which there were plenty, and resulted in a far more satisfying experience than anything delivered by Tilson Thomas.
The concert closed with an appearance by Gabriele Fontana, a late addition to the programme and fresh from her performances in Capriccio. She gave us 3 Strauss songs: Das Rosenband, Morgen! and Cacilie. Finn had warned me of the quality of her voice, which had been one of the many things that he had found lacking in Capriccio and having had my expectations of what a soprano could do suitably lowered by Deborah Voigt, I was forearmed as she took to the stage. On the plus side Stenz provided perfectly good accompaniment. But Fontana's voice was simply not very good. It was, however, fascinating to listen to: every now and again you would think 'oh, this is quite nice' and then suddenly it would go horribly off and sour. She is a singer best avoided.
Still, all in all it was an enjoyable evening in the concert hall. I'm very glad to have heard the Zimmermann, and may well have to seek out a recording, and I was thoroughly swept along in the Schumann. While not the greatest orchestra I've heard, and certainly comparing poorly against Scotland's three main ones, they were far from the worst.
Saturday 1st September brought the closing concert, not counting the fireworks, which I don't, and the realisation that this review isn't even vaguely timely. Deneve led the Royal Scottish National Orchestra in a celebration of Poulenc, about whose music I know next to nothing other than that he's French. I will confess that in the past I've been a little lukewarm about Deneve, his Bruckner 4th last year fell flat, for example, and in truth the evening's main draw was soprano Christine Brewer. However, it seems I may have been unfair to Deneve. Here, in French repertoire, he is clearly at home and very persuasive. He got some wonderful playing from the RSNO throughout, and really underscored how much they've closed the distance with the BBC Scottish in the last couple of years. But the star was Christine Brewer: her effortless power soaring over the orchestra, the sheer beauty of her voice. I would be interested to find out if she's recorded the work.
Following the interval came the organ concerto and an appearance by Gillian Weir (and some welcome use of the hall's organ, which hasn't really got the use it ought since its restoration in 2003). She gave a wonderful reading, and again left me anxious to become better acquainted with the work. Finally we received exerts from his opera Dialogues des Carmelites. Wonderfully played and sung, and directed. The drama was heightened at the end as the nuns arranged themselves in a row at the front of the stage (in such a manner that the BBC didn't place nearly enough microphones to properly catch the event). As the percussion sound for the guillotine came down, from left to right they bowed their heads one at a time. Actually, it was until about the 4th of these before I realised what the sound was (rather than some infuriating noise off), but the effect was powerful. It was one of the finest pieces of concert staging I've seen. Indeed, it called to mind the fact that in the Proms Gotterdammerung (superbly conducted by one Donald Runnicles, review to follow) a director was credited, despite the fact that any work he might have done wasn't much in evidence. Contrast the festival where I've seen many concert operas, and never once have I noticed such a credit (though, in truth, this was the only occasion I can recall where it would have been merited).
All in all it was a wonderful evening of French music and a fine close to the 2007 festival.