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Conneson, Roussel and  Beethoven: Paul Lewis (piano), Royal Scottish National Orchestra, Stéphane Denève (conductor), Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 1.10.2010 (SRT)

Guillaume Connesson:

Roussel: The Spider’s Feast

Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 5, “Emperor”


Every so often you get a musician-of-the-moment who transcends the media hype and provides an experience that lifts the listener into a whole new understanding of the music. Paul Lewis is surely one of these. His star could hardly be riding much higher than at present: his complete cycles of the Beethoven sonatas and concertos, not to mention his concerto cycle at this year’s Proms, won critical accolades across the board, and rightly so. Tonight he reprised the Prom performance of the Emperor that he had given with the RSNO in the summer. His Beethoven playing radiates with authority: the fistfuls of notes in the opening cadenza tumble out with ease and his control of the great structure is utterly assured. If anything, though, the finest moment came at the still climax of the Adagio in the meltingly beautiful section where the winds play the main theme and the piano gently ambles around it. This was playing of such intensity and concentration that it felt as though it had come from another world, so deep is his communion with this remarkable score. Denève and his orchestra played with similar authority, cutting the string vibrato so that they sounded entirely different to the first half of the concert, and the slow movement in particular was played with austere, almost classical beauty in contrast to the fireworks on either side.

Stéphane Denève has long been a great advocate of the music of Albert Roussel (they were born in the same town) and his cycle of recordings with the RSNO have been highly praised. They are about to record The Spider’s Feast and they treated us to a performance of gossamer textures that pointed up the music’s transparency and atmosphere. In a nice touch, a supertitle screen provided a commentary on the action of the ballet as the music unfolded so that we could picture for ourselves the antics of the spider, the butterfly, the ants and the dung beetles. The advantage of such impressionistic writing is that it allows the colour of individual instruments to shine through, the winds in particular sounding fantastic.

For the second time in two weeks, though, it was the ten out of 10 section that stuck with me most. Guillaume Connesson’s Aleph was commissioned by the RSNO in 2007. Part of his Cosmic Trilogy, it deals with the Big Bang, and a complete recording of the Trilogy with the RSNO already exists on Chandos. The Bang itself is got out of the way with in an opening crash, and after this the music is dominated by repeated semi-quavers which, for me, suggest billions of atoms rushing outwards to occupy the infinity of newly created space. The mood is buoyant and optimisitic and Connesson’s use of the orchestral colour is highly effective, not least in the huge percussion section. The feeling of rushing movement is underlined further by the way the music bandies across from section to section and its rhythm and mood put me in mind of the Candide Overture at times. Perhaps you could accuse it of being a little repetitive, but it’s still a piece I would happily hear again.

Simon Thompson


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