“Müller-Schott’s cello lines sing”
A ‘French Feast’ of music with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra
Tall, dark-haired, handsome, talented, humble, charming – yet I still cannot begrudge him anything. Daniel Müller-Schott was the immensely capable German solo cellist taking part in tonight’s performance of a ‘French Feast’ of music with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra. In a talk in the bar of the Usher Hall with RSNO violinist Ursula Heidecker Allen prior to the concert, Müller-Schott described his musical ability as being “his mother’s fault”, she being an accomplished harpsichord player who always had the house full of music and musicians when he was growing up. He had many anecdotes, including the time his friend Philipp Lahm, former captain of the German football team, came to his house. Lahm had a go on Müller-Schott’s cello but professed that he might find it easier if he could play it with his feet!
This concert, of largely Romantic music, kicked off without the cellist. César Franck’s Les Éolides is a symphonic poem based on a poem of the same name and was composed during the latter part of his life when, as professor of organ music at the Paris Conservatoire, he was at his happiest and his work was more refined. The beginning of this piece has a lot of exposed entries by different orchestral groups and unfortunately one of the brass entries slightly misfired, but it was largely unnoticed by the audience. The silver-haired Gilbert Varga, conducting, has a very elegant baton style and strikes a debonair pose on the podium. He conducted without a score and, despite being a guest conductor, connected really well with the orchestra, conveying subtleties within the subdued dynamics which really evoked the ebb and flow of the wind subject of the original poem.
Müller-Schott joined the orchestra for Camille Saint-Saëns’ Cello Concerto No.1 in A-minor. I liked the programme. French-born Saint-Saëns wrote the piece for Belgian cellist Tolbecque; Franck, whose music came before, became a citizen of France but was originally Belgian. Ok, maybe I’m just being a bit of a sad europhile, but it tickled me. What anybody could appreciate, however, was the quality of the performance. This is a gem of a piece of music anyway; regarded by Rachmaninoff, no less, as the best cello concerto ever written. But Müller-Schott’s cello lines sing, achieving a remarkably consistent tone from the lowest open strings through to the highest register, from dazzlingly quick triplets to whole phrases in harmonics. He achieves the hardest thing: to make the virtuosic look effortless. Müller-Schott’s own modesty showed through in the music as he let the music speak and it spoke magnificently.
The melancholic Elégie to follow was all emotion and so beautiful. Every time I hear Fauré’s music I always think “I must listen to more Fauré”. I suppose it’s akin to watching the Olympics and vowing to get fit, you know it’s good for you. The audience loved Müller-Schott’s performances and did not want to let him go. For his encore he played a movement from one of Benjamin Britten’s cello concertos. I feared at first that it would be a little too discordant for the ‘French Feast’ audience but they lapped it up. I think he could have played anything!
Some conductors are a bit too up themselves to even attempt to engage meaningfully with an audience, but Varga is not one of them and he made a deliberate, helpful, effort to introduce and explain each piece. After the intermission he quoted Einstein, “Imagination is stronger than knowledge”, and explained that “we musicians give you food for your imaginations, especially in Ravel’s Five Tales from Childhood”. Ma mère l’Oye (Mother Goose) is the collective title for them. It was a pleasant surprise to see a conductor who has the courage to get the strings to play so quietly for conductors are often “More string, please!” and it really allowed the woodwind soloists to be fully ‘cantabile’. Orchestral lead Maya Iwabuchi enjoyed some lovely, very expressive, solo lines in the 4th and 5th sections.
The finale was Ravel’s La Valse, a hugely fun, engaging piece of music which I think is difficult to get right but which the RSNO pulled-off with energy and precision. Varga’s conducting became purposefully jerky and robotic towards the end, hamming-up the idea of the music representing a petulant child breaking up his ‘waltz’ toy to make something more mechanical, supposedly better, but actually more ferocious and alarming.
Great entertainment and musical good times! We can be proud to have a national orchestra such as this and with upcoming programmes to suit a variety of tastes I would certainly recommend supporting them at a concert near you soon.
Reviewer: David Jones (Seen 6 February)