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Wagner, Tchaikovsky, Sibelius: Renaud Capuçon (violin), Royal Scottish National Orchestra, Stéphane Denève (conductor), Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 11.12.2009 (SRT)

Overture to Die Meistersinger

Tchaikovsky: Violin Concerto

Sibelius: Symphony No. 2


Renaud Capuçon is undoubtedly one of today’s great violinists, but seeing him in the flesh made me question more than once how he manages to produce such wonderful sounds on disc. The beauty of tone is beyond question: his opening flourish in the first movement of the Tchaikovsky concerto was interesting and always entirely musical, settling down to a lovely statement of the main theme which really opened up the violin’s lower registers. I tried to put his on-stage gyrations and prancings from my mind: mere showy distractions, I thought. However his contortions really damaged some of the faster passages where he was damaged by decidedly iffy tone, especially the lightning moments at the end of the exposition which jarred unpleasantly with the sounds coming from the orchestra. Just stand still and play accurately! What a contrast with James Ehnes who played the same concerto with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra last March in a performance that was almost deadpan to look at but conjured such unforgettably beautiful sound at every turn. Capuçon was more comfortable with the slow movement, and his encore, a variant of the Dance of the Blessed Spirits, was really successful because he spun out a beautiful, seamless line without showiness or vulgarity. By the end of the concerto’s finale, however, I was left with the uncomfortable feeling that his had been a performance with more surface sparkle than profound understanding.

Not so the RSNO, who are going from strength to strength this season. Music Director Stéphane Denève coaxed some lovely sounds out of the Tchaikovsky and played around with the tempo for some of the quieter sections of the finale in a way that was interesting and effective rather than tokenistic. Like his orchestra, Denève is maturing as a musician of the highest stature. This was the first time he had conducted Sibelius 2 and, speaking as someone who has always struggled with Sibelius, for me his reading made the work clear, uncluttered and purposeful. He conducts with an eye to the long, architectural view, most effectively in the pacing of the transition to the finale and the long climax at the end of the work. Perhaps the closing bars lacked that final blaze of triumph, but the orchestra gave everything to support their chief, not least the brass section who had a stupendous evening. As well as dominating the finale they shone out with awesome clarity in the chorale-like theme of the first movement, like the sun emerging from behind a cloud. They also led a top-notch performance of the Meistersinger overture, shining with a burnished glow that would not be out of place among the ranks of their most distinguished European colleagues. The string passages at the beginning were perhaps a little foggy, but they cleared up as the overture progressed, every comical trill well observed in the apprentices’ motif, and the chuckling winds added some well judged colour. Confirmation that you don’t need a showy soloist when you have an orchestra of such great quality at your disposal.

Simon Thompson


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