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Schumann, Elgar, Janáček: Natalie Clein (cello), Royal Scottish National Orchestra, Stéphane Denève (conductor), Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 14.5.2010 (SRT)

Symphony No. 4

Elgar: Cello Concerto

Janáček: Taras Bulba


This was the RSNO’s 2009-10 Season Finale, and what a meaty feast: an entire Schumann symphony before the interval! The orchestra have played all of Schumann’s symphonies this season to mark his bicentenary. Conductors have included Jakub Hrůša, Roger Norrington and Andrew Davis, but Music Director Stéphane Denève saved the last for himself. He opted for the 1851 version because, he said, it was this version that he first got to know and love as a teenager. This, for me, was a very fine way to end their commemorations. The strength of Schumann’s symphonic argument is never beyond doubt but in the hands of a maestro like Denève the music was worked with rigour and clarity, be it the strength of the introduction or the masterfully judged transition from Scherzo to Finale. There was plenty of sharp definition too, especially in the Scherzo’s main theme contrasting with its waif-like Trio. The restrained melancholy of the Romanze stood as a calm refuge in the midst of the stormy drama that was going on around it, with gorgeous instrumental colour. Similar colour was on display in a performance of Taras Bulba that was wonderfully alive, especially in the fantastic colour of the percussion and brass. Great as the final climax was, however, it didn’t upstage the poetry or scene painting of the earlier sections. The gorgeous oboe solo of the love music or the yelping clarinet signifying the death of Ostap were lyrical highlights in the orchestral texture.

Natalie Clein, one of today’s greatest poets of the cello, joined them for the Elgar Concerto. Clein is one of the breed of soloists who seems to become one with her instrument when she plays it: it seems more like an extension of her body from which the music flows lovingly. Lost in rapt concentration throughout, she tapped into the music’s lyrical heart in a way I have seldom heard. Even the intense opening flourish was articulated with restraint and tenderness, as if to emphasise the work’s bittersweet melancholy even in the most strident drama. The first movement’s main theme was full of loss and yearning, and even the acrobatics of the scherzo or the finale’s march seemed to hold an air of restrained regret. In fact the cello’s meditative musings at the end of the finale seemed to verge on the existential, time standing still in a way I have seldom experienced. The Adagio, the heart of the work and of her performance, seemed to be exhaled in one endless breath, achieving the impossible feat of combining weight with a sense of lightness and space. Gorgeous, and if you want to see what I mean then you can hear it for yourself when this concert is broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on 27th May 2010.

In his audience chat at the start of the performance Denève told the sold out Usher Hall that the orchestra’s audience figures were up 25% on last year. Some of this will be down to the fact that they are back where they should be in their Edinburgh home, but it must also be because the orchestra is producing work of the very highest quality at present, consistently reaching heights that this time last year I, frankly, would never have expected. They are riding on the crest of a wave at the moment with a dynamic music director, excellent leadership and support, and a tremendous sense of good will from their audiences. Things look very good for the future.

The RSNO will be performing a number of concerts at this year’s Edinburgh International Festival and BBC Proms, and their Summer Pops concerts run for the month of June. Their new season begins in September. For full details go to

Simon Thompson


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