There's a moment in the first episode of the classic sitcom Frasier where his father complains that nothing in the flat goes with anything else. It is, explains Frasier, a style called eclectic, the guiding principle of which being that so long as one selects items of sufficient quality they will work together. It could be argued that this philosophy also underpins some of Stéphane Denève's programme selections. It doesn't always work, such as when he was looking for bedfellows for the Faure requiem, but in the season finale, things came together nicely.
Indeed, the comparison with the Faure is the more apt since then the work that should have been last was placed first. Not so on Friday. Here, Denève started with the symphony, rightly realising that Janacek's Taras Bulba packed the bigger punch and belonged at the close. But, before that, he turned to the audience to speak. The audible groan from someone close by me suggests I'm not alone in not caring for this. And, yet, credit where it's due: this time he spoke both briefly and informatively. Audience statistics aside, he explained that the Elgar cello concerto and Taras Bulba were written at about the same time before pointing out that, despite being very different pieces, they, as he put it to much topical humour, worked together as a "musical coalition".
He didn't explain how Schumann's 4th symphony fit in, but did explain that, with themes running through it, it was almost a symphonic poem, or symphonic fantasy as Schumann had thought of calling it. Certainly Denève played it accordingly, barely pausing for any gap between the movements. I always feel Schumann does best when played with plenty of oomph and a good dose of romanticism, and certainly the reading had no want of energy. There was some good playing from the orchestra and a nice heavy finish.
Then, came the interval, a departure from the norm of placing the concerto at the end of the first half, but probably a wise one. Truls Mørk was to have been the soloist in Elgar's peerless concerto. Sadly, he is recovering from lyme disease (and we wish him well and back on the podium as soon as possible). However, with plenty of time to locate a replacement, the RSNO were able to lay their hands on someone for whom no apology needed be made - former BBC Young Musician of the Year Natalie Clein, who has in the past recorded the concerto with that late great master of British music Vernon Handley.
Clein was impressive, giving a clear, lucid and technically excellent reading. Behind her Denève and the orchestra provided sensitive accompaniment. Why then didn't this most moving of pieces ("the most moving British piece" as Denève had described, though I don't know about that) move me? Perhaps it was that Clein, and as a consequence Denève and the orchestra, since they were very much on the same page in their interpretation (something that doesn't happen as often as it ideally should) were fairly light. Personally I think something heavier, richer and more melodramatic works rather better. My favourite accounts grab hold of my heartstrings with the opening chords and then play an enthusiastic game of tug of war with them - this never quite managed to find a grip. Interestingly, listening to Clein's account on spotify it has almost everything this lacked. I seemed to be in a minority though, and she gave an encore, a Catalan folksong, transcribed by Casals.
So, to end the season, came Leos Janacek. Taras Bulba made for a fitting ending, not least as it provided a much too infrequent opportunity to hear the Usher Hall's glorious organ in full swing. Hear and, indeed, feel the vibrations of those low chords in the first movement in a way you never do at home. The piece was well served by Denève's taste for theatricality, particularly in the execution depicted by the end of the second movement. The finale movement, full of glorious brass action, provided a wonderful climax of sound and drama.
As we entered the hall, the seats were covered in brochures for the 2010/11 season. My tickets have already arrived but there's plenty of time yet to get yours.
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