"I'VE always loved the word 'penultimate'," confided Stephane Deneve by way of his penultimate podium chat.
"But I'm not sure I love the meaning of it just now." He went on to make a slightly macabre link between his own "life cycle" and the piece he'd be conducting in the second half, the Rite of Spring; Stravinsky's pagan girl dances herself to death, while Deneve is only moving to Stuttgart.
Anyway, there was a definite sense of occasion to Deneve's second-last programme as music director of the RNSO – not least thanks to the stellar presence of Canadian violinist James Ehnes. If you know Ehnes by his recordings, you might have been pleasantly surprised by his husky live sound, whose audible bow changes and "wolf notes" (undertones) add a depth of character.
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His account of Barber's Violin Concerto was earnest and searching and extremely moving, not the blithe Americana some make the piece. He was generous spirit, too, with two encores: Paganini's 24th Caprice – oodles of notes but not a single one misplaced – and, highlight of the evening, a radiant and peaceful third movement of Bach's third solo sonata.
But this was meant to be Deneve's night, and it opened hot on the heels of the orchestra's recent (and very fine) Debussy album with the Prelude a l'apres-midi d'un faune. Flautist Katherine Bryan made the first few bars gorgeously voluptuous, but generally Deneve failed to match the fluidity of the recording. The first bars of Stravinsky were marred by a wayward hearing aid in the auditorium; Deneve looked irritated enough to restart, but didn't. He never seemed to fully relax after that, but the orchestra played for him with ferocious vigour nonetheless.