I was very much looking forward to last night's RSNO concert: Deneve tends to be at his very best in French repertoire, added to which I've never heard Faure's Requiem live. Something of a surprise was in store, however. No, not the the fact that still, five months after reopening, the temporary laminated signs in the Usher Hall still display incorrect seat numbering (though for reasons passing understanding they do), rather the programme order. The Requiem, the work featuring organ, full chorus and children's choir, that renowned curtain raiser, or, rather, the work that one would normally expect to find at the end of the concert, was kicking things off.
They played it very beautifully and delicately, of course, with fine singing from the RSNO chorus and youth choir, and it was wonderful to hear the hall's organ in full swing. Soloists Lisa Milne and Christopher Maltman turned in fine performances too. Deneve had bunched the strings almost all together on the left, though this didn't seem to adversely affect the balance of the orchestral sound. True Faure's Requiem doesn't have the out and out fire of Verdi's or the overt sense of drama that pervades Brahms'. Yet, when well performed, as it was under Deneve, it remains a profoundly moving and powerful work. But like all great requiems it feels like a final word, and as it ends you just want to go home. It belonged in the second half. Perhaps the choir wanted an early night, perhaps it was prompted by some logistical question (they are taking it to Amsterdam on Sunday), or perhaps Deneve had some obscure yet compelling artistic reason.
However, if he did, he shared it neither in his introduction to the programme, nor in his customary, rambling and not terribly enlightening talk after the interval (he might perhaps take a hint from the lack of enthusiasm which greeted his "good evening" and stick to the conducting). Instead he introduced the first of two works that sat rather oddly in the second half. Even had the order been reversed, they still did't seem good partner's for the Requiem. First up was Roussel's third symphony. Again, this was well played. It also provided plenty of the sorts of orchestral fireworks that Deneve generally carries off with great flare. At the same time, though, it was a rather unremarkable and forgettable piece.
They closed with Ravel's La valse. This too was nicely played, and is nice enough as a piece, though there are much finer works by Ravel and ones that better showcase his genius for orchestration. It too has its thrills. Yet while the second half might have had more volume or bombast, it didn't have the nearly the power or the emotion of the first. Added two which, two party pieces just don't sit quite right with a requiem. The result was a weirdly unbalanced and unsatisfying programme, despite the strong performances.
They gave us the Farandole from Bizet's L'Arlésienne as an encore. To carry off something like this requires an exceptionally tight ensemble and at the start they weren't quite there, though things improved markedly, culminating with a stunning turn by principal flautist Katherine Bryan (who deserved to be brought individually to her feet by Deneve but wasn't).
Fortunately, their next requiem, Britten's in April, has the programme all to itself so we shouldn't have the same problem.