SELDOM has the Royal Scottish National Orchestra sounded so… well, quiet. It was shrunk down (fittingly) to almost chamber orchestra proportions for most of conductor Gilbert Varga’s all-French concert, and he was all about exquisite detail and subtle, pastel colours rather than big, flamboyant gestures.
Usher Hall, Edinburgh
Nowhere more so than in the opener, Franck’s wind-inspired Les éolides: pleasant rather than arresting, it nevertheless showed off Varga’s elegant control of shape and sound.
Balance was a bit of an issue in the Saint-Saëns First Cello Concerto that followed. Cellist Daniel Müller-Schott either stood out assertively against Varga’s rather hushed orchestral backdrop or became submerged within it, seldom finding a happy medium, and his hot-headed account contrasted puzzlingly with the conductor’s cool sophistication. There was no doubting his astonishing technical accomplishment, though, and his encore – the Declamato movement from Britten’s Second Cello Suite – was thoughtful, assured, and a pleasingly unusual choice.
Varga used his softly-spoken precision to magical effect in Ravel’s fairy-tale miniatures Ma mère l’oye, and the RSNO responded with some beautifully crafted, restrained playing, principal flautist Katherine Bryan injecting welcome sensuality into the solo flute lines. Then the orchestra suddenly swelled and Varga let rip in a searing account of Ravel’s frenzied La valse – which, as the conductor explained in an engaging introduction, first builds then destroys a Viennese-style waltz. Right from a ghostly opening, Varga balanced charm with disturbing decadence, and the piece’s cataclysmic conclusion blazed with fire and fury. Truly a journey from calm to clamour.