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Edinburgh’s feast of music and drama

07 September 2012

William Dundas gets a biblical opera and a couple of premières under his belt


Surpassing love: Pascal Charbonneau as David, and Ana Quintans as Jonathas, in David et Jonathas, brought to the Festival Theatre, Edinburgh, by Les Arts Florissants, for the Edinburgh International Festival

Surpassing love: Pascal Charbonneau as David, and Ana Quintans as Jonathas, in David et Jonathas, brought to the Festival Theatre, Edinburgh, by Les...

EDINBURGH does know how to be decadent. In the Fringe this year, Old St Paul's Episcopal Church hosted a series of concerts under the banner heading of "Hot Chocolate at 10": late-night recitals preceded by a cup of melted chocolate, topped with cream.

The recital that I attended was "An Hour with Bach". The performers were John Kitchen (the church's Director of Music), on harpsichord, and Mark Bailey, on cello. They performed three sonatas for viola da gamba and obbligato harpsichord, J. S. Bach's BWV 1027-29. There was much to admire throughout, but the Sonata in D (BWV 1028) was the most satisfying.

The opening Andante had thoughtful expression and phrasing; the following Allegro exhibited a strong and muscular interplay between two instruments; and the second Andante had a breadth that enabled the final Allegro to shine.

Earlier in the evening, I had attended a one-man play, Gotcha! It was written by Charles Barron and well acted by Paul Hughson. It observed at close quarters the best and worst aspects of humanity, and how external influences affect one's judgement and moral code. For the most part, the text is narrated by Ernie, a grandfather and traffic warden. He also plays several characters: some are family, others are just people from the narrative of the play. The material is a thoughtful survey of how unsatisfactory Ernie's lot in life has been.

The Germans lost the war, but it is they who build expensive BMW cars that are driven by the rich motorists who habitually go over time on their parking meters. He has been a victim of alcohol abuse, but his grandson doesn't touch the stuff: he's fit, and he's going to be a soldier. He has a harrowing experience in Afghanistan, and takes refuge in the comfort of drinking.

The play is peppered with acute and touching observations, the keenest of which is the mirrored response of David's mother on being told that her son is missing in action, and of the Afghan's being told that her son has been killed (by David). They, in turn, narrate identical texts: everything in life has another side. All in all, Ernie doesn't reckon that God has managed the circumstances and events in his life at all well.

When he is diagnosed with cancer, a result of his drinking, he is lucky enough to find a stranger who can care for him. He looks heavenwards and bellows: "Gotcha!"

St Mary's Scottish Episcopal Cathedral hosted a stunning Liszt piano recital by David Wilde. He is a septuagenarian. He has an impeccable musical pedigree influenced by Solomon's pupil Franz Reizenstein and Nadia Boulanger. His recital consisted of only three pieces: Funérailles, Sonetto 104 del Petrarca, and the Mephisto Waltz No. 1.

This was playing with panache and clarity, bravura and subtlety. If I had had some ready cash on me, I would have bought one of his current CDs.

CHARPENTIER's opera David et Jonathas has been enjoying a revival in a new production from the Festival d'Aix-en-Provence. It isco-produced by Opéra Comique, Paris, and Théâtre de Caen.We were very lucky to see it in the Edinburgh International Festival.

David et Jonathas is in the form of a prologue and five acts. It was simply and effectively produced, if somewhat heavy on angst in direction. The musical forces of Les Arts Florissants swept the action along with poise and style. This was early music in big-band style.

This was not composed as a stand-alone opera. It was performed in Jesuit colleges with Saül, Latin texts by Fr Pierre Bretonneau. Both works were interleaved in performance.

In modern performances, we get the Charpentier pieces run together to form an opera. This worked well with a clean set that shrank in width and height at key points in the drama. When it was not at full width and height, it appeared bisected, trisected, or significantly reduced, to show events that happened before or in between the action within the musical texts. The acting and singing were of the highest standard, and the interplay of the characters all took place in indoor settings.

Pascal Charbonneau sang with feeling and colour, fully portraying the sensitivity of David. Ana Quintans's Jonathas was carefully crafted and portrayed, enabling her role to standequal to that of David, and Saül, sung by Neal Davies. Davies inhabited the role of Saül with a convincing sense of venom and neurosis. Dominique Visse gave a sterling performance as the mother and the witch. Frédéric Caton was persuasive as Achis, and Kresimir Spicer was a noble Joabel.

If you find yourself able to get to a future performance, you should seize the opportunity.

Watt is a theatrical monologue. We are advised that Watt the show is not Watt the book. The text has been selected from the novel of the same name by Samuel Beckett. Barry McGovern made the selections and delivered the monologue in a touring production from the Gate Theatre in Dublin.

One of the first lines spoken, and I paraphrase here, comments that it it is difficult to think of God without thinking of him as a man, which, indeed, he was at one time. The entirety of the show is a detailed description of people living apparently godless lives in which their sole purpose, and joint purposes, seems to be to analyse the details of an unrewarding existence.

This was, curiously, a joy to witness. It was insightful, informative, beguiling, and intriguing. It was relaxed in delivery. As a friend said to me, it was lovely to be in the theatre and to feel that one was not being shouted at.

The performance was a mixture of word play, word rhythms, and carefully judged silences. We heard about the grand piano the mice had enjoyed. It had only a few strings remaining, and even fewer dampers, and few of them coincided.

Watt is a down-at-heel character who takes a job in service, in the house of a Mr Knott. It is one of those big houses outside Dublin which have fallen on hard times - like all the people living and working in it. Mr Knott has the same meal served to him twice a day - that is, if he chooses to eat it. If he doesn't, it is offered to a mythical dog. We hear of sessions where a lady lays her head on Watt's lap, and Watt in alternation rests his head on her breast.

It's a hapless life. I was so intrigued that I bought the book. It is published by Faber & Faber.

PHILIPPE HERREWEGHE conducted his forces, the Orchestre des Champs-Élysées and the Collegium Vocale Gent in works by Brahms and Bruckner in the Usher Hall.

The choral piece by Brahms, Gesang der Parzen ("Song of the Fates") is a rarity that perhaps deserves to remain in obscurity. The lofty text refers to the gods' remaining at eternal feasts at golden tables, and striding from one mountain to others. The orchestral writing is more interesting than the text. It has some wonderful bass sound in the lower strings, contrabassoon, and bass tuba. There are, however, some heavy stresses that create a sense of an uneven gait in the music: not a winner for me.

The two Bruckner offerings were Te Deum and Ninth Symphony. Herreweghe's period performances of these two pieces were enlightening and convincing. So often the Te Deum seems to start with a bang, and continues as a race to the finish. The most obvious thing about this performance was the orchestral and choral phrasing, closely aligned to a keen balance and blend of orchestral and choral voices. Although this is a work in one movement, the sections were clean and clear. The vocal soloists' contributions were more obvious and audible. Hanna-Elisabeth Müller, Ann Hallenberg, and Maximilian Schmitt all made solid contributions; but the gold star must go to the bass Tareq Nazmi for his "Et rege eos, et extolle illos" ("Govern them and lift them up").

Great praise also goes to the Collegium Vocale Gent. The Ninth Symphony held many delights. The greatest was how the brass was cleanly chorded and integrated into the overall orchestral sound, as opposed to blasting out over the top of everything else. If I were to pick one moment from this performance, it would be the attack in the strings in the Scherzo. You can have your chance to choose a highlight if you listen to the broadcast of this concert on BBC Radio 3 on 10 September.

Greyfriars Kirk hosted the Hebrides Ensemble with Synergy Vocals. They performed the world première of James MacMillan's Since it was the Day of Preparation . . . The text starts at the point in the scriptures where MacMillan's St John Passion of 2007 finished.

The forces employed are worthy of comment: cello, clarinet, horn, harp, and lute/theorbo. The singers consist of a soprano, alto, tenor, and bass. Brindley Sherrattsang the part of Christus, bass solo. The singers sounded chimes when Christus spoke.

This is a complex piece formed in three parts including seven sections. Each section is preceded by an instrumental solo interlude, and each part closes with an interlude played by the quintet of instrumental soloists. At times, the biblical text is delivered with a parallel text in Latin. This was very effective.

The standard of performance was excellent. The instrumental solos in particular were great to hear, but probably lasted too long. The horn solo was particularly beautiful, and well played. They were too long to serve as contextual links, and as such weakened the structure and effect of the piece. I am sure that, with some effective editing, this will become a popular and regularly performed work.

THE European Union Youth Orchestra, conducted by Gianandrea Noseda, gave the UK première of Twenty-Seven Heavens by Richard Causton. It refers to William Blake's concept of 27 layers on the way to Eternity. It is a piece for large orchestra. It begins with the two lead violins in a screeching ascending roar, moving on to a moaning warble, and then to long notes in the winds, accompanied by a variety of percussion. There are some Tristanesque bits of orchestration, followed by woodwinds snarling under the brass sections and thumping drums. The piece comes to an end with a great big pendulous tune, complete with guitar-type strumming cellos. It ends suddenly mid-growl. The orchestra played splendidly. You can form your own opinion during a BBC Radio 3 performance on 11 September.

The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra accompanied the violinist Baiba Skride in Offertorium by Sofia Gubaidulina. The performance was conducted by Andris Nelsons. This piece is a violin concerto that takes a theme from Bach's Musical Offering. The piece also represents the offertory of the mass. It is a complex work with dense orchestration, and falls into three sections, but is performed in a single movement.

The success of the performance came from the obviously shared vision of soloist and conductor. The transitions between sections were identified by cadenzas in the solo-violin score. The piece ended with a chorale-like coming together of the soloist and the string sections of the orchestra in a substantial chorale-like setting. The excellent playing received genuine applause.

My final concert at Greyfriars Kirk was given by the Alim Qasimov Ensemble. The instruments included the balaban, a cylindrical oboe; the daf, a drum; the kamanch, a spherical spike fiddle; a naghara, a cylindrical double-sided drum; and the tar, a double-chested plucked lute.

Some readers may be familiar with this father-and-daughter-run group from their recordings with the Kronos Quartet. The basis for much of their music is the Azerbaijani classical music known as mugham. Qasimov says that this is élite music for a select group of people who have some kind of inner spirituality. The texts in this performance were of love, sacrifice, and fate. The rich textures and rhythms created a sense of well-being and warmth within me. The performance was warmly received by the large audience. I think they felt the same way.

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