THE 2013 Edinburgh International Festival (EIF) had a theme:
This year's programme included three Requiem settings: by
Brahms, Fauré, and Verdi; and yet Sir Jonathan Mills does not end
his term as director until 2014.
It would seem that these were, quite simply, works that the
various performers wished to perform. They were also vehicles for
the two choruses who regularly perform at the EIF to show what they
Fauré's Requiem was performedby the Scottish Chamber
Orchestra and the National Youth Choir of Scotland, conducted
byRobin Ticciati. The soloists were Daniel Doolan, treble, and Sir
Thomas Allen, baritone.
The programming was strange, to say the least. In the first half
we heard Debussy's (arranged by Sachs) Prélude à l'après-midi
d'un faune, followed by Schoenberg's Verklärte Nacht.
After the interval, we were offered Webern's Five Pieces for
Orchestra, Op. 10, and then the Fauré Requiem.
The music in the first half was well played and enjoyable to
listen to. Ticciati drew impressive atmospheric and colourful
playing from his orchestra. The two pieces, however, might more
usefully have been the first half of a completely different
The two pieces in the second half could logically have
constituted a programme by themselves. I imagined Webern's five
pieces as tiny "lives" in Petri dishes, viewed through the lens of
a microscope, each "life" being colourful and very short-lived.
Perhaps the Fauré Requiem celebrated these five short
lives. This was an even and well-balanced performance. The National
Youth Choir of Scotland sang with great assurance and a warm tone.
The different sections blended well and and executed seamless
For a youth choir, they were very impressive. The two soloists
gave very personal performances. Doolan, treble, was a replacement
in the role. His opening phrase in the Pie Jesu was nicely
coloured, clear, and firm. Sir Thomas seemed, in contrast, to be
ill at ease and tentative, especially in "Hostias et preces
tibi". It was as if he had rehearsed to perform in a modest
village church, but seemed slightly pushed to project to the
rafters of the Usher Hall. The thoughtfulness of his phrasing of
the text and colouring of the music could not disguise his apparent
vulnerability. Ticciati conducted his forces warmly and with great
MAHLER's "Resurrection" Second Symphony, was given a splendid
performance by the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, which sprang
from the innermost thoughts and sensibilities of the conductor,
Mariss Jansons. His knowledge and obvious respect for Mahler's
symphonies offer listeners uncluttered performances devoid of
excessive emotional glare or "boy-racer" fluctuations in tempo.
The opening and closing moments of the first movement were great
examples of the above qualities, especially the point at the end
where there is a descending flurry down through the string sections
of the orchestra to arresting pizzicato notes. The decent
was even and the pizzicato notes were pianissimo,
but I guarantee that they would have been clearly audible at the
back of the hall.
Having travelled Mahler's journey to the point where the distant
"resurrection brass" play, Jansons showed, again, how well he
understood the acoustic capabilities of the Usher Hall. The brass
sounded in turn from the lobby of the upper circle, and then from
off-stage right, and then left. At upper-circle level, no doors
were open to the auditorium, and the sound was ethereal and
There followed more brighter brass from the off-stage bands. An
atmosphere had been created, where all too often the effect is of a
vulgar fanfare announcing the "The big song is next." The singing
of soloists Genia Kühmeier and Anna Larsson came from near the back
and to the left-hand side of the orchestra. This allowed their
sound to come as if from within the chorus, as Mahler intended.
The Edinburgh Festival Chorus were seated, and sang their
opening entries from that position. When they stood, the obvious
increase in volume was sensational. Their diction was clear and
nicely rounded. The closing pages of the last movement were created
by Jansons as carefully as he had the closing pages of the first
movement. The full orchestra drew the performance to a fitting
close with the strength and power of its playing: not just the
DR JOHN KITCHEN is a Senior Lecturer in Music at the University
of Edinburgh. He also holds the post of University Organist. It was
in his capacity as Edinburgh's City Organist that he gave an
illustrated introduction to "How a Pipe Organ Works".
He began by playing an arrangement of a piece by Handel. He
described it as sounding as Handel would never have heard it.
Having let the organ speak for itself, he then introduced us to
The Usher Hall organ was built in 1913 by Norman Beard of
London. It is a romantic concert organ, and was played by Widor in
1914. It has 63 stops, and in excess of 4000 pipes. It is a special
organ, because it retains the original specification: no
alterations have been made. By the 1970s, it had fallen into an
unplayable condition. It was restored and re-installed in 2002 by
Harrison & Harrison of Durham, who are involved in the final
stages of a similar project for the Royal Festival Hall organ in
Kitchen explained that this organ was built at a time when
tracker action (where the link from playing a key to the sound
coming out of a pipe was achieved by a system of rods)had been
abandoned by all but the purists. This organ has electro-pneumatic
action, where the opening of the valve allowing air into an organ
pipe is assisted by the electric control of a sequence of valves
pushing air to the valve of individual pipes. One of the main
benefits of this system is that it allows the console (containing
the keyboards/manuals, pedal board, and stops) to be at a remote
location from the pipes themselves.
He explained that a stop is a row of pipes that produces a
specific sound, and that there are two types of pipes: flues and
reeds. Sound is achieved by passing "air under pressure" to the
pipes. Flues are pipes where air is forced across the rectangular
opening (mouth) found on the front and on the bottom half of the
pipe. This causes vibration to travel through the pipe to create
sound. (Think of a flute). The other type have a vibrating tongue
within the pipe that creates the sound.
The wind is at a constant pressure. The pipes sound at a fixed
volume: it cannot be increased. "That's strange," I hear you all
think. There are changes in volume. They are achieved by having
some stops/pipes in an enclosed box. This box has louvred openings.
When they are shut the pipes sounds are muffled/muted. As the
louvres are opened the enclosed pipes can speak more freely out
into the auditorium: thus achieving a crescendo. The other way of
affecting the volume is the choice of stops. Bigger pipes tend to
make a bigger sound and smaller pipes a smaller or more shrill
Now we come to the tricky subject of registration. This is the
choice of which stops to use: which to use when and which to use
together. Different organists can play the same piece of music on
the same organ and yet all can sound different. The choice of stops
changes the colour and feel of a piece of music.
The last big mystery that was explained was how an organist (a
single person) can change so many stops while playing four manuals
and a pedalboard. "Pistons" is the answer. These are buttons
situated under the keys on the manuals and above the pedals. Before
performing, the organist can preset combinations of stops and
assign them to a specific button: hence two or more stops can be
engaged by pressing only one button. And just to make things easy
for the organist at the end of a performance, they do not have to
all the individual stops back in individually. There is a piston
called General Cancel. If you press that, all the engaged stops
jump back to the disengaged position in one single action.
Thank you, Dr Kitchen, for helping make all that technology
clear to us.
The other two Requiem performances will be included
in next week's review.