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Dukas, Knussen, Rachmaninov: Royal Scottish National Orchestra, Leila Josefowicz (violin), Stéphane Denève (conductor), Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 28.1.2011 (SRT)

Dukas: The Sorcerer’s Apprentice

Knussen: Violin Concerto

Rachmaninov: Symphony No. 2

One of the consequences of living in a global musical age is that the distinctiveness that marked out orchestras of different nations has now largely been diluted and it’s a lot harder now to distinguish, say, a French orchestra from an Italian one.  That carries some losses, but it also means that quality of playing tends to be more even between countries too.  There was a time when the surging theme of the Adagio from Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony only sounded satisfying when played by a Russian orchestra, but tonight the strings of the RSNO swelled and pulsated with Romantic energy that sounded every bit as convincing.  When this was followed by a clarinet solo of effortless breadth and beauty there was a lot to be happy with and the colours of the performance glittered through as often as possible, even if the brass weren’t always as together as they could have been.  Conductor Stéphane Denève phrased the work with loving beauty and a keen eye for architecture, especially in the finale, which romped home to a resoundingly satisfying conclusion.  Colour and shine were also the keynotes in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, which was quirky and evocative as required, even if Denève didn’t quite succeed in his aim of bringing out the anxiety of the story.

Not for the first time this season, however, the most interesting work of the evening came from the Ten out of 10 series.  Oliver Knussen’s violin concerto was premiered in 2002 by Pinchas Zukerman, but Leila Josefowicz has played it around fifty times since, often with the composer conducting.  She plays the work with a real sense of ownership, understanding it from the inside and revelling in its rich textures.  Knussen structures it as a series of scenes (Recitative, Aria, Gigue) rather than distinct movements, each flowing into one another organically.  The work’s circular structure also lends it a clear feeling of unity, beginning and ending with a chord on two bells as the violinist plays a top E.  The opening movement feels busy, even strident at times, and the finale fully lives up to its Gigue title, a swirling perpetuum mobile with a hint of demonic energy.  The heart of the work, however, is the astonishing central Aria, a spellbindingly beautiful, angular melody, spun with effortless intensity from the soloist.  Josefowicz came into her own here, sailing beautifully over the chorale-like orchestral texture while extending the melody’s long line with hypnotic intensity.  Orchestral support was discrete and thoughtful, completing a perfect introduction to a work which I already look forward to hearing again.

Simon Thompson

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