In the run-up to the departure of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra’s Musical Director Stéphane Denève this summer, it was fitting that an ‘Auld Alliance’ programme of French music was chosen for the orchestra’s spring visit to Perth Concert Hall, complete with French conductor Fabien Gabel. An undoubted added attraction in the billing was a chance to hear popular Scottish soprano Lisa Milne singing Songs from the Auvergne.

Lisa Milne, © Clive Barda
Lisa Milne,
© Clive Barda

Joseph Canteloube wrote some thirty songs of the Auvergne, and nine were arranged into an orchestral suite to allow instrumental colour to be added. The songs are charming, simple mountain tales of shepherdesses, stolen kisses and dreams of young rural love. Gabel clearly relished Canteloube’s gorgeous harmonies and was rewarded with some wonderful solo and ensemble playing from the woodwind, who were the undoubted stars of this performance.

It was a great pity that Lisa Milne’s animated and enthusiastic interpretation was literally drowned out by the large orchestral forces, which could have been cut down and definitely should have been tightly reined in by Gabel, but had been clearly left off the leash. Milne employed a breathy technique for effect at times – which, despite the open vowels of the Occitan text, sacrificed volume. It was only in songs where the orchestra quietened down and Milne sang out that we were given glimpses of what we could have been hearing.

Perth Concert Hall has a good acoustic which is generous to the likes of smaller baroque groups and solo piano, but it can get a bit noisy for larger orchestras. While this property produces exciting sounds, extra care has to be taken with balance where there are instrumental or vocal soloists trying to compete.

Hector Berlioz wrote his Rob Roy Overture as a competition piece for the Prix de Rome, but was so dissatisfied with it after its première that he burned the score. The piece only survived because of the competition copy he had already sent in. Characterised by the ‘Scots Wha Hae’ tune peppered throughout, and played here to start the evening off with gusto by the five French horns, the work is a hotchpotch of ideas that do not pull together into a coherent whole. There were some standout moments, including a stunning cor anglais and harp duet, but despite conductor and orchestra doing their best, this was a mundane piece: Berlioz eventually recycled some of it for his Harold In Italy, which perhaps says it all.

Things were much happier in the second half, which consisted of a performance of César Franck’s Symphony in D. Franck struggled to get this work approved by his peers, due to its structure and inclusion of a cor anglais, which was not considered a serious instrument in those days. The piece is absolutely stuffed with tunes from start to finish, and Gabel and the orchestra gave a magnificently Gallic performance with lots of punchy brass in the outer movements – yet they were soothing in the central allegretto section, with its featured cor anglais solo over pizzicato strings. The orchestra clearly relished this material, and Gabel employed lots of light and dark shades before building to a tremendous finale.

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