The warmth of the applause, heartfelt and genuine, welcomed conductor Neeme Järvi back to the Usher Hall to conduct the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, the Edinburgh audience and the orchestra responding as if greeting a much-loved old friend. Järvi was Principal Conductor 1984-88 forging a special relationship with the players (the SNO in those days) leaving a legacy of benchmark recordings and an orchestra in great heart, calling it his ‘Berlin Philharmonic’. Now in his 80s but sharp as a pin, he took the orchestra through a delightful crowd-pleasing programme of French music from Delibes, Bizet and Saint-Saëns.

Neeme Järvi © Simon van Boxtel
Neeme Järvi
© Simon van Boxtel

Excerpts from Delibes’ Greek mythology ballet Sylvia, ou La nymphe de Diane took us into the forest with the RSNO’s burnished hunting horns leading the galloping chase. A delicate intermezzo with violins and woodwind answering each other was followed by a slow waltz with hesitant beginnings like a nervous couple on the dancefloor. Järvi slowly wound up the music, swinging both arms as the shy dancers gained confidence. Much fun was had from the well-known ‘Pizzicati’, played crisply with unpredictable hesitancy, followed by leader Sharon Roffman’s violin solo soaring and some beautiful flute work. A final Galop, Marche and procession rounded off a lively suite, Järvi impressing with his ensemble detail and the orchestra’s rich brass section adding Bacchanalian vigour.

Mezzo-soprano Catriona Morison, singing in her home city and standing in for a recovering Dame Sarah Connolly, brought her own programme of excerpts from Bizet’s Carmen. Famous for completely immersing herself in her roles, her stunning scarlet dress acted as a shortcut to her character as the thinned-out orchestra played the famous Act 1 prelude at a serious lick. Morison’s approach to her three solos was soft and sultry, a dangerously sensuous Carmen, her rich voice gently smouldering in the Habanera, relishing the French libretto and opening up gloriously only at the end. Her solo from Act 3 was wonderfully dark and sombre as she read of her own death and Don José's in the pack of cards. To finish, Morison’s lightly flirtatious and beautifully understated performance of the Seguidilla complemented the orchestra’s energy. Morison’s spot was over far too soon – I hope we can see her on stage in a complete Carmen as her approach to the part was an intriguing teaser.

Saint-Saëns' Symphony no. 3 in C minor, “Organ” was a showcase for the RSNO and the Usher Hall’s magnificent original instrument, played with careful registration choices by Michael Bawtree. The two-movement symphony started quietly, Järvi constructing the move to the main theme with purpose and with bright detail from the woodwind and strings. The Adagio dialogue between strings and organ was beautifully ethereal and perfectly balanced before a gloom descended, violins softly interweaving as the movement ended. I enjoyed the exciting and energetic start to the second movement with scurrying woodwinds and strings with piano from four hands adding a glittering dynamic. The big maestoso organ moment with full clash cymbal flourishes was as exciting as it should be, but again, I was impressed with orchestral detail, Järvi adopting minimal direction and barely raising his hands above shoulder height as the piece came to a powerful conclusion with a deep rumble and trumpet fanfare. Alas, a bit too powerful for the timpani in the very final bars which will send timpanist Paul Philbert off to the drum-skin cupboard before the repeat performance in Glasgow.

Järvi brought Michael Bawtree down to the front for his bows, and left us with a delightful encore of the Waltz from Delibes' Coppélia before taking his score under one arm and politely offering the other to the associate leader, guiding her offstage to continuing applause.

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