It seems to be the thing nowadays for conductors to talk to the audience. Stéphane Denève, the new musical director of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, assured us that James MacMillan's Britannia was a "fantastic piece" and sang a few lines of "Knees up, Mother Brown", which MacMillan quotes in his comic overture.
Denève is not a profound or inward musician, but there is a vitality and a gaiety about his style that make his performances memorable even when he takes obvious routes. His Beethoven Seventh Symphony was spontaneous, loose-limbed, moving easily from the grandeur of the parade-ground to the bustle of the fairground.
This conductor has selected some excellent programmes, and this concert, too, contained two exciting modern works. The central item was Penderecki's Second Violin Concerto. This is a hard listen because of its kaleidoscopic, episodic structure - it goes on for 40 minutes without a break - but it is a varied and assured piece, transforming its tiny chromatic theme into rapturous incantation and uncanny aria.
The Polish composer is a man of high integrity. He never descends to mere sentiment or pictorialism. However, he often makes it hard for the soloist to penetrate the orchestral clamour. The slight figure of Chantal Juillet had to give her all. Indeed, her intimate, breathless playing was best heard in reflective cantilena, in all those arias from another planet. She is a touching player, but perhaps the piece needed somebody with more muscle.
In Britannia, the normally serious MacMillan displays broad humour. This Scottish composer sets out to glorify all things British, but he cannot resist sending the whole thing up. "God Save the Queen" is delivered in drunken trombone raspberries; Elgar and Arne are torn to pieces and reassembled; a fiddle reel is swept away on an orchestral flood; "Lilliburlero" is played very slowly, and "Mother Brown" is honked in your face. Whistles are blown, car horns blare.
But there is plenty of vintage MacMillan in this piece: mystical string chords and shimmering sonorities. Denève and the orchestra captured it all, unbuttoned and atmospheric by turns.Reuse content