Classical review: RSNO: Deneve Returns, Glasgow

St�phane Den�ve's return to the RSNO was joyfully received. Picture:  Drew Farrell
St�phane Den�ve's return to the RSNO was joyfully received. Picture: Drew Farrell
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RSNO: Deneve Returns | Glasgow Royal Concert Hall | Rating: ****

Stéphane Denève’s first return to the RSNO since standing down as music director was a predictably friendly engagement. “Good evening, bon soir” – the audience clearly have not forgotten what was once the standard call and response of Denève nights. To which he added the old Bruce Forsyth line, “nice to see you…”, and wasn’t disappointed with the reply.

There followed a personal slant on the busy programme, much of it indecipherable as he retreated into a French accent as thick as a compound Debussy chord. No matter. The old entente cordiale was rebooted.

Everything that Denève does well he then delighted us with, namely the Ravel and Debussy constituents of the programme, and his obvious personal attachment to James MacMillan’s The Death of Oscar, originally commissioned for the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra, and now receiving its UK premiere.

A host of associations inspired this plain-speaking ten-minute concert opener – though it was not the opener in this instance, Debussy’s March Écossaise was – which includes Paisley sculptor Alexander Stoddart, his visionary dream to carve a monument image of Ossian’s son Oscar into a granite cliff in the Scottish Highlands, and MacMillan’s supportive enthusiasm for that, this piece being one manifestation.

It sounds like music he could have conjured up in a day, an archaic war cry from the horn embedded in its mysterious opening, the emerging strings (they could perhaps have been more ecstatically intense in this performance), then a jaunty trumpet tune that gathers multiplicity and momentum, before the melting cor anglais lament that calms the spirit.

The Scottish resonances were amplified by the ­preceding Debussy, which flavours a real Scots tune – the Earl of Ross March, added here as a mood-­setter on solo bagpipes – with myriad spiced harmonies and exotic colours. Denève, and an alert RSNO, seemed inspired by its ­infinite possibilities.

Another pal of the conductor, pianist Steven Osborne, completed the opening half with Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand, which, in Osborne’s working hand, sounded every bit as it should, as if both hands were fully engaged. Again, a colourful interpretation of an intrinsically dark work. And a tender Debussy encore for both hands.

The second half was often ravishing, dogged by occasional messiness in Richard Strauss’ Death and Transfiguration (so this is where John Williams’s Love Theme for his Superman soundtrack derives from). Finally, more Ravel to send us dizzily home: the irresistible swagger of La Valse.