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Bernstein, R Strauss, Brahms: Emmanuel Laville (oboe), Royal Scottish National Orchestra, Kristjan Järvi (conductor), Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 9.10.2009 (SRT)

Overture and Suite from Candide

R Strauss: Oboe Concerto

Brahms: Symphony No. 1

What a fantastically diverse concert this was! The two items of the first half were like chalk and cheese and it’s a testament to this orchestra’s virtuosity that they dealt with them both so well but so differently. Bernstein’s Candide Overture takes no prisoners: it explodes into life with its first bar and its energy doesn’t stop until it staggers over the finishing line. The RSNO’s playing, and Järvi’s direction, thumped with energy in every beat, from the opening guffaw in the brass right through the tangos, waltzes and marches of the ensuing suite. It’s a shame that we hear the suite so rarely as it’s full of fun, including a solemn brass chorale and a waltz that could have been lifted out of Rosenkavalier. Järvi, always interesting to watch on a podium, swayed and gyrated his way through the music and the orchestra responded to every nuance: they clearly love working with this conductor as they produce some of their best work with him.

The contrast with Strauss’s Oboe Concerto could hardly be greater. Where Candide was all bluster and optimism, Strauss’s work was utterly charming, full of poise and autumnal warmth. Its disarmingly graceful opening sets the tone, a fluttering pulse on the strings with a seamless oboe line of infinite delicacy. The links with the world of late Mozart, especially the clarinet concerto, are not far from the surface. The brief dialogue between oboe and solo viola in the first movement was really lovely, as was the gorgeously spun out main melody of the slow movement. Soloist Emmanuel Laville is the RSNO’s principal oboe and he played the fiendish part with flair and seeming ease. He had seemingly endless reserves of breath for the long legato lines of the main themes, and his fingerwork in the lightning-quick main theme of the finale was astonishing. He also knew just when to raise the bell so as to make a greater impact, showing overall musicianship that was altogether marvellous. This isn’t a work I knew before this evening, but I can’t imagine a better way to be introduced to it.

The mighty Brahms 1 has had its cobwebs well and truly blown off over the last few years with ground-breaking interpretations by the likes of Gardiner and Mackerras. Järvi has clearly been listening to them as his tempi were very much on the fast side. I can’t shake off the feeling that the opening sostenuto loses some of its impact when it is taken so quickly, but the rest of the work felt like it had been given a shot in the arm. The triplet rhythms of the first movement sounded even more savage, heightening the contrast with the broad string melody which flows out of it in the development. The Allegretto was sunny and bright, while the contrasts of the last movement felt truly titanic under Järvi’s exciting direction. The opening of the finale, where the orchestra fumbles around in the darkness searching for a theme, seemed to collapse into chaos before giving way to the gloriously optimistic horn solo, played with forthright assurance by David McClenaghan. Then the big string theme sounded unstoppably confident and the drive of the final pages felt like preparing to go into orbit. Only in the slow movement did we lose some of the warmth and beauty of the music, partly because of the tempo and partly because the direction was less assured from the podium. On the whole, though, this was a marvellous interpretation, forged by Järvi’s energetic passion and his obvious love for this music. The cumulative sense of drive from the orchestra swept the whole audience along. Each section sounded fantastic, but the brass were especially exciting in the final pages as the trombones got us ready for lift-off.

Simon Thompson

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