RSNO / Deneve, Usher Hall, Edinburgh

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The Independent Culture

The Royal Scottish National Orchestra have been having a stellar season. They have something special in their new music director, the 34-year-old Frenchman Stéphane Denève, whose textures are lucid and tempos vital. He tends to start each concert by saying a few words, his diffidence captivating audiences. He smirks, hesitates and mispronounces, like a caricature of a French comedian.

The last concert of the series began with Einojuhani Rautavaara's Book of Visions, gaving the conductor an excuse to speak for 10 minutes, describing the new Finnish work - this was its British premiere - as "fantastique".

It was, indeed, extraordinary to observe how this fine composer, once a radical modernist, has retrenched stylistically. He writes modal melodies and parallel harmonies that recall Vaughan Williams; indeed, you think of the Sinfonia Antartica, a work derived from a film score. Book of Visions could easily be music for a movie. Pastoral oboe solos and a spiritual violin suggest exotic scenery. It's a visual piece, a set of haunting pictures.

The audience seemed a bit puzzled, but had no problem with what followed, Saint-Saëns's Second Piano Concerto played by Jean-Yves Thibaudet. The piece is brilliant, heartless, Parisian, and Thibaudet rode it like a powerful horse, getting into a sure-footed rhythm, leaping every fence. With all his virtuosity, he plays with what can only be called good taste; rapid passagework shimmers and ripples, complexities are delivered with nonchalance. The finale was taken so fast as to be on the verge of unplayability. This kind of living on the edge demands teamwork. Two Frenchmen; maybe that's what Saint-Saëns needs, with an orchestra on top form.

They turned finally to Debussy's La Mer. This mosaic of tritons and sea-nymphs flickers past in a luminous dazzle, yet Denève abandoned his usual flourish and took it with loving care. He changed it into a Mediterranean dream, a song heard through the mists of a warm ocean. Each familiar feature - a rapturous figure for cellos, a closing chorale of horns - was caressed, given a heartbeat. Muted trumpets lost their snarl. This was French elegance rather than French wit.

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