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 Knussen, Mozart, Rimsky-Korsakov: Lars Vogt (piano), Royal Scottish National Orchestra, Stéphane Denève (conductor), Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 2.10.2009 (SRT)

Flourish with Fireworks, The Way to Castle Yonder

Mozart: Piano Concerto No. 24

Rimsky-Korsakov: Scheherezade

At long last the RSNO have returned to their regular Edinburgh home, the Usher Hall. This called for a celebration, and we duly got it in Knussen’s virtuosic orchestral Flourish with Fireworks. Short and to-the-point, the composer’s notes make a lot of his debt to Tippet and Stravinsky, but it’s also a lot of good, simple fun with plenty of fanfares and moments in the limelight for each section. After this The Way to Castle Yonder, based on a funeral sequence from Knussen’s opera Higglety Pigglety Pop!, was surprisingly moving, especially the central Kleine Trauermusik with its solemnly effective chorale.

Lars Vogt is the first of the top-notch guest soloists that the RSNO are hosting this year, and he gave a grand, architectural view of Mozart’s darkest concerto. At some points he seemed almost to crackle with electricity in his interactions with the orchestra, communing with them on a deep level almost as if the audience were not there at all. His first movement cadenza was showy but also significant in the way it dealt with the main themes. If the opening movement showed the communion with the orchestra then the finale seemed to come closer to a contest between soloist and band. Each variation seemed to become greater in scale and scope so that by the end the feeling of magnitude and grandeur was inescapable. The sublime slow movement was like a beacon of stillness in the middle and it really showcased the RSNO winds who were having a fantastic night, each enjoying and making the most of their moment in the spotlight: at some points in this movement the strings seemed almost like spectators.

Not just the winds, though, but the entire orchestra were on the peak of their form for Scheherezade. Rimsky’s colourful collection of tales bursts with opportunities for the orchestra to amaze, and amaze they did. Each solo contribution was very well observed, especially in the Tale of the Kalender Prince where bassoon and oboe cast truly beautiful spells before the trombonist blasted us all into a far darker place. In this work Denève’s direction was at its very best, especially the in the vast expansiveness he managed for the seascapes and the unbearable excitement he whipped up at the end of the Kalender Prince. The soft-focused love music of the third movement showed his more relaxed side, though the cheeky snare drum motive could have been more prominent. OK, it wasn’t perfect – some of the lightning-quick passages in the second and fourth movements weren’t absolutely together, and Mia Cooper’s violin solo sometimes struggled for the exposed top notes, particularly at the end – but if this was a statement of intent for the new season then we have a lot to look forward to.

Simon Thompson

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