Tuesday 24 March 2009

Springtime in Paris in Edinburgh - Deneve and the RSNO

I want to write a nice review, I really do. And, purely on musical terms, I can, so I think what I'm going to do is just talk about that and confine my ranting to the final paragraphs (well, more or less).

Owing partly to the absence of the Usher Hall this year (something I am assured will not be the case next year, though having walked past it a couple of times recently, I'm a little concerned), it's been far too long, over a month and a half, since I last heard the Royal Scottish National Orchestra in concert. Sunday's programme was the first of two (for some reason I don't appear to have booked for the other) themed around Paris, Paris with Style being the title of part one.

Deneve began with reduced forces for Mozart's 31st Paris symphony. While there was nothing wrong with it, I have heard it in the concert hall only a few months ago (unaccountably I haven't written a review); then it was played to perfection by those masters of late Mozart: Mackerras and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. Certainly the RSNO had nothing to be ashamed of, but in comparison they didn't quite have the same tightness or bounce.

Things picked up considerably with Rossini's Sinfonia from Il viaggio a Reims, one of his many, many operas. It was fine in every way I felt the Mozart was lacking slightly. The orchestra positively sparkled, with oboist Emmanuel Laville on especially fine form in his solo.

Things only got better after the first interval (of which more anon, I'm not going to rant now) as we moved to even firmer Deneve territory with Francis Poulenc. Anyone who doubts how fine a combination this team is here clearly wasn't at their 2007 festival concert. First up was his harpsichord concerto. Now, initially I had my doubts as to how well even a more modern instrument could blend with a big symphony orchestra, but as the piece progressed these were washed away, not least by Jory Vinikour's superb playing. Some may feel the instrument lacks range, but I think this provided a showcase to the contrary as peddles were kicked to alter the texture of the instrument as needed. There was then a pause as the stage was rearranged for something even finer in the form of Poulenc's concerto for two pianos. Pianists Frank Braley and Eric Le Sage were well matched and played superbly with no hint of thumping. It was a glorious piece and once again reminded me I really must pad out my music collection as far as Poulenc is concerned. Pity those at the interval who commented that they didn't really warm to the composer and seemed to have found Vinikour's bright red socks the most interesting thing.

This was hard programming to top, and though fine, the third half (why, sorry, I was going to save that for the end) didn't entirely manage it. Ibert's Suite symphonique Paris was interesting, and superbly played, conveying various images of the city including the metro (not nearly as vivid as Nymann's DGV: Musique a Grande Vitesse) and most finely a picture of an ocean liner.

The finale was a bit of fun in the form of Offenbach and an arrangement by Manuel Rosenthal of various pieces culminating in the Can-Can. Certainly, it was extremely well played, especially from the brass (and having played the overture to Orphee aux enfers, I can note that it isn't particularly easy, though perhaps that only indicates how inept a trombonist I am myself), but the highlights were in the second half.

So what could I possibly have to complain about amid such gems? Well, first, first off it was too long (not quite so bad as the 2005 Bamberg epic) but unless there is one vast work that calls for it, three hours is too long for a concert, it would have bee more satisfying just to have the best bits (the Rossini, the Poulenc and the Ibert, say).

A bigger complaint was the presentation. Deneve insisted on talking constantly, and saying nothing of any particular interest, for several minutes before almost every piece: did we really need to know that Rossini was very fond of cooking? Compare his discussion of the different middle movements of the Paris symphony with Mackerras's detailed exposition of the differences and the history in Glasgow. But it was worse even than that, he spent the first few minutes speaking in French with a translation projected on the screen behind him. This was not half as funny as they seemed to think. The projector didn't go away: it showed largely pointless slides throughout is speaking (I have nothing against the language mind, it's just that when you're addressing an audience that doesn't, for the most part, speak it, or speak it well, what's the point?). Worse, it remained on while they played. Did we really need the first page of the score projected illegibly during the Paris symphony or a cartoon of Rossini during his piece. Worse, to make the screen visible the lights were turned down low so one didn't have nearly as good a view of the orchestra as would normally be the case (as was painfully illustrated when they faded up the lights so they could take bow).

They showed a DVD in between the Poulenc concerti, to cover the time moving the pianos and harpsichord (had they opted for a more sensible length, this could have been done in the interval). This had the potential to be interesting, but all we really learnt was that the composer scored pretty terribly at most of his subjects at school and largely blagged his way through.

It got worse. A static image is at least ignorable. In the third half we got live mixed video images, showing mostly Ibert's Paris (though in the second movement, they didn't seem to be showing the suburb). It was extremely distracting, in the manner of a TV in a pub, only worse. It would have been fine if it had actually added something; it didn't. Okay, you can close your eyes, but I like to actually watch the orchestra.

Arts organisations are supposedly struggling for cash these days, so you would think that this kind of silliness would be the first to go. We can only hope. It's a terrible shame because, musically speaking, the evening ranged from good to superb. Had it been recorded for broadcast, I'd be urging you to listen; it wasn't, but I'm lukewarm about recommending next weekand, and whether or not such things as I've moaned about get your goat too will determine whether or not you should take the trip.

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