It may not immediately seem to fit with the festival's New Worlds theme, yet to me the RSNO's second visit to the festival, under the baton of their chief conductor Stéphane Denève, seemed a perfect match. A week and a half before I'd been at an adaptation of The Sun Also Rises, which chronicles some Parisian residents on a journey to Spain for fiestas and bullfights. As such, what could sit better with that than some french composers writing about Spain. It was also heavy on the kind of dazzling showmanship with which Denève thrives.
They began with Chabrier's Espana. The orchestra's playing was impressive, not least given the speed at which he took it. Indeed, so much so that I might have liked them to go a touch slower in places and allow some of the wonderful brass fanfares to breath a little more.
This was followed by Ibert's Escales. While its sole Spanish connection is a final movement titled Valence (composition having been begun in Vaencia), it does have an Iberian feel throughout. Shades too of the heat of Debussy's Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune. Their performance featured an impressive mix of beautiful soft playing, the orchestra's fine string tone particularly noticeable, and fabulous climaxes marked by their wonderful precision, power and speed.
However, the real meat came after the interval with a concert performance of Ravel's one act farce L'heure Espagnole. To start with there was Ravel's gloriously textured orchestration, evident from the very opening bars as metronomes were used to depict the ticking clocks of the horologist's shop that forms the setting. Indeed, it made me wish that Ligeti's Poeme Symphonique for 100 metronomes had opened the concert.
The piece itself was wonderful, nicely witty as the watchmaker's wife's various lovers hide in different clocks as she attempts to juggle them during the brief window of opportunity that her husband's time servicing the town's clocks affords her. Indeed, the slight regret is that it wasn't staged, as doubtless something was lost. The outstanding performances came from Sophie Koch, who acted the coquettish wife Concepcion to perfection, and Christopher Purves' glorious and rotund town dignitary Don Inigo (of course, we've already been treated to his fine acting recently with his portrayal Beckmesser in WNO's Proms Meistersinger). Even were my French fluent (which it isn't), I suspect I'd have been glad they gave us the full text in the programme as the orchestra sometimes overwhelmed the signers. Their playing, though, remained as fine as it had been the whole evening.
I had gone into the concert after a frustrating day at work. I came out with a spring in my step - Denève and the RSNO had delivered just what the doctor ordered.
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