In this, the last of his farewell programmes, Stéphane Denève bade au revoir to Edinburgh in front of an audience of the great and the good, containing ambassadors, diplomats and ministers as well as all his Edinburgh fans. There were speeches, presentations and more than a touch of the Hollywood Academy Awards Ceremony. “But what about the music?” I hear you ask. The programme was a logical sequel to last week’s concert, the principal works being in response to commissions from Diaghilev for the Paris seasons of the Ballets Russes.

Stéphane Denève © J Henry Fair
Stéphane Denève
© J Henry Fair

We began with Britannia, composed in 1994 by Scottish composer James MacMillan. The single movement is an evocation of that mysterious yet instantly familiar quality “Britishness”, and a homage to British orchestras. It contained quotations from Elgar, the National Anthem, Scottish jigs and old-time music hall, amusingly interspersed with referees’ whistles, taxi horns, and all manner of city sounds. As a sound palette, it was interesting and gave each section of the orchestra a chance to shine. This was definitely a fun piece and got the evening off to a good start.

Eschewing a solo concerto, Denève opted to finish the first half with an orchestral showpiece in the shape of Strauss’s Till Eulenspiegel. As a young man, the composer was frequently in heroic mood; this is the period of Heldenleben, after all. Perhaps Strauss was even identifying with the eponymous hero and playing the enfant terrible of his generation. The orchestra brought the piece off with virtuosic flair, apart from a minor fluff in the initial horn entry (though this was spot on when the theme appeared for the second time). The E flat clarinet lent just the right feeling of jauntiness (but nothing too raucous); the brass played with crispness and menace. The softest pianissimo and the loudest forte passages were handled with stylish pace and precision.

After last week’s exhilarating Rite of Spring, the orchestra needed an even more impressive work to bring Denève’s tenure to a suitable climax, and he chose Ravel’s ballet Daphnis and Chloé. In addition to a common genesis with the Stravinsky, this is possibly the closest Ravel came to composing a Gesamtkunstwerk, one which he himself described as a “ballet symphonique”. Instead of just the Second Suite, which is all we usually hear in the concert hall, the audience was treated to the complete score. Surtitles enabled us to imagine the action as if it were happening before our eyes. The forces are enormous and even allowing for the fact that the chorus, at least 150 strong, is meant to be offstage, there cannot be many theatres with an orchestra pit large enough to accommodate all the musicians. I counted eight in the percussion section alone, including a wind machine.

When the second half began, the conductor entered wearing a kilt of tricolour tartan, which the audience greeted with roars of approval and laughter. This Daphnis was no joke, however. The writing is immensely complex: at times each separate desk of strings seems to be doing something different. Denève held all the threads together and elicited some spectacular playing. The flute section, including a G flute, positively melted their solos, as did the clarinets. The muted trumpets raised the hairs on the back of my neck. Since the choral parts are wordless, the RSNO Chorus and Junior Chorus were integrated like additional instrumental resources, weaving fresh colours into the rich textures. If Phil Spector gave rock music the ‘wall of sound’, Denève’s RSNO gave us a tsunami. No sooner had it passed than the audience was on its feet in a richly-deserved standing ovation. Truly a thrilling and fitting end to seven years in Scotland.