It was slightly unfortunate that Stéphane Denève and the RSNO had chosen to open their 2010/11 season with Dvořák's 9th symphony, albeit a rather obvious choice, as Denève himself admitted. The problem was not so much the work in and of itself, but the fact that it is so over-played, which means that it doesn't always work too well if the performers don't have something special to say about it. Problematic too because we've been rather spoilt lately for good and fresh performances, such as Nelsons' excellent turn at the Proms and, more crucially, the performance by Runnicles and the BBC SSO not one month ago in the same venue.
Sadly Denève and RSNO didn't come close. Where Nelsons banished all hint of routine, and Runnicles provided electrifying climaxes and nail-biting tension, Denève didn't seem to have terribly much to say at all. Not only was the result rather bland but, more critically, the ensemble playing was not nearly as tight as it should have been. Numerous entries, especially in the slow movement, were just a little rough around the edges, balances between sections jarred slightly, the brass were rather woolly and the strings struggled to sustain the extreme pianissimos they were called upon to produce. It wasn't that the playing was bad per se, just that it wasn't up to the very high standards this orchestra can produce, and did produce just a month ago at the festival. And, indeed, the standards they had managed in the first half of the concert. I've no idea if it was the cause of the problems, but it would be interesting to know how much rehearsal time the symphony got - it felt like it could have used that bit more for some fine tuning. Then there was the failure to build or sustain tension, the lack of drama. All told, it was an adequate performance, the trouble is that this is a work were adequate isn't really enough.
Despite better playing, the first half was also a little hit and miss. They opened the programme with MacMillan's Three Interludes from The Sacrifice. Now, the first thing I want to know when presented with a suite from an opera is where in the opera the music was taken from, what dramatically is going on, so the music is properly in context. Sadly the programme notes didn't provide this (there was a synopsis of the whole piece, but nothing to relate that to the suite), and Denève in his remarks only briefly touched on it. As such, well played though it was, if the work isn't as fiendishly tricky as some of his earlier compositions which I've heard recently, I didn't feel that I was getting out of it everything that was there.
They were then joined by Nicholas Angelich for Ravel's concerto for left hand. This has been a thrilling experience the last few times I've heard it. Curious, then, just how low octane their reading seemed to be; the more so given Denève's affinity for French music and his flair showy pieces. This coupled with Angelich's rather too percussive style, with an awful lot of thumping early on and an over-fondness for the sustain peddle, left me unmoved and unsatisfied by it. Another oddity concerned his right hand. Normally, there is a very obvious struggle as the artist fights the urge to use their this too: I've seen them grip the piano, their leg, or anything else that is to hand as they wrestle with something against what they're used to. It tends to heighten the drama. If Angelich was suffering any such conflict it was invisible.
He followed the work with an encore of a little more Ravel, the second movement of the Sonatine. This is a beautiful piece, but called for a greater delicacy than Angelich seemed able to bring to it.
All in all, then, not the finest of starts to the season. However, it seems likely that better is to come - next week we are joined by Paul Lewis for the Emperor concerto.