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Nights in the Usher Hall

05 September 2014

William Dundas takes his pick of this year's Edinburgh Festival

HervÉ Pouyfourcat

Big-band Baroque: Jordi Savall conducts Hespèrion XXI and other performers

Big-band Baroque: Jordi Savall conducts Hespèrion XXI and other performers

THIS summer's Edinburgh International Festival (EIF) had a theme of war and conflict. The centenary of the First World War was but a starting-point.

The opening concert was Debussy's Le Martyre de Saint Sébastien, dating from 1911. It was played alongside Schoenberg's Five Pieces for Orchestra, Op. 16, and Scriabin's Prometheus, the Poem of Fire: not a piano concerto, but an orchestral piece with a significant part for piano (soloist Kirill Gerstein). The common link between the pieces was the time of their composition and their varying exotic sound-worlds. Each piece was well conducted by Oliver Knussen, better known as a composer.

Despite the male subject-matter, the role of Saint Sébastien was sung by a woman: Claire Booth. The other two soloists were Claire McCaldin and Polly May. The remaining forces were those of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra and the Edinburgh Festival Chorus. While being beautifully orchestrated and employing full and divided choruses with good use of the three female soloists, this was not, I found, a satisfying piece. All too often the luxuriant orchestration was at odds with the gruesome nature of the texts.

My second visit to the Usher Hall was a triumph of unaccompanied choral singing from The Sixteen. There were 36 singers listed in the programme, and I am sure we heard each of them at some point during the concert. Harry Christophers presented us with a real "cut, copy, and paste" programme of works by one composer sometimes interleaved with those of another.

Christophers is a master of the harmonic blend. Each piece sat naturally with the one before and the one after. He also knows how to achieve tonal balance, and how to place individual singers within the group to create solid or antiphonal effects.

This was a concert of seamless artistry. Works by Josquin, Sheppard, Poulenc, and Taverner followed one upon another. For me, the undoubted highlight was the closing piece: Poulenc's Figure Humaine. It is a paean of joy celebrating the end of the Second World War. The length of the text can seem daunting, but hardly a line of it is repeated, and the pace is brisk throughout. Sometimes it is a fast staccato, dreamily floating, lyrical, ethereal, or skipping. The Sixteen can be very versatile indeed.

Another great night in the Usher Hall was provided by Jordi Savall and Hespèrion XXI, Le Concert des Nations, and La Capella Reial de Catalunya. This was early music in big-band mode. The photo shown above is of a performance of the same concert given in another venue. The platform of the Usher Hall allowed a more spacious layout, and no doubt a more open sound.

The concert was a celebration of Europe during the Baroque era, 1614-1714: from the Thirty Years War to the Peace of Utrecht: the end of the war of Spanish Succession. It served as a history of European music during this period, including works by Scheidt, Schein, Jenkins, Lully, Charpentier, Blow. and Handel, among others.

The effect was that of a tapestry in sound. Instrumental marches were followed by choruses supported by full orchestra, delicate quartets from the four orchestral soloists at the front of the platform, and pieces for unaccompanied or lightly accompanied vocal soloists. It was an evening of stirring and delicate sounds. I was left energised and emboldened to go out and discover more of the music from this period.


THE first of my visits to Greyfriars Kirk was to hear Sister Marie Keyrouz from Lebanon. She was accompanied by members of her group The Ensemble de la Paix, founded during the bombing of Lebanon in 1984.

On this occasion, it consisted of six male singers providing stark contrast to Sister Marie's clear, clean, and powerful voice. When I first reviewed her in these pages some years ago, I was mesmerised and in awe. On this my second opportunity to hear her, I was elated. My memory was not shattered. The sound was as pure, as rich as I had remembered it.

This has been a bad year for printed programmes at the EIF. For this concert, the texts were printed only in English. This made it impossible to hear or follow the them as they were sung. This is a great shame, because the performance included the Cherubic Hymn (from the Divine Liturgies of St Basil and St John Chrysostom), extracts from the Aramaic and Maronite Marian traditions, and the Alleluia: Exapostilarion from the Bridegroom Matins of Holy Week (Byzantine Melkite tradition). It is a shame not to be able to follow and understand a performance. I bought a CD as a retrospective aid.

My Greyfriars series continued with a concert by the Polish Radio Choir consisting of alternating settings of Górecki and Penderecki. This is a very talented choir, currently nurtured and conducted by Izabela Polakowska. She is herself an accomplished singer, but her skill as a choral conductor is obvious.

The first piece by Górecki was Totus Tuus, a Marian chant composed for the third pilgrimage of Pope John Paul II to his native country in 1987. It opens quietly and simply and in the closing words, "Totus tuus sum, Maria!" drifts quietly off into contemplative silence.

This was followed by Penderecki's Missa Brevis. The conducting here helped to balance light and shade in the choral parts, where some were for women only, and others for men only. The Gloria had a spiky feel to it, with little repetition of the text, but much overlapping of the lines. The Agnus Dei was, in turn, full and strong, dreamy or strident, and ending in peaceful and ethereal tones. Also included was one of Górecki's Marian pieces: "Hail, Mary", with bright open and airy textures.

Next up were the Ricercar Consort, with a concert of music from the Thirty Years War by Scheidt and Schütz. At first, I wondered whether this was going to be just another one of those concerts. I was wrong. The interspersing of instrumental intradas and canzons between the choral sections were well chosen, and helped to set the tone for the music that was to follow. The five singers produced a good variety, and blended well with each other. The highlight of the concert for me was Schütz's setting of Herzlich lieb hab ich dich, O Herr (I will love thee, O Lord: Psalm 18) for solo alto, two violins, and continuo. The vocal soloist was supported well by the continuo and ethereal effects on the upper strings.

THE Usher Hall was the setting for a choral concert by Collegium Vocale Gent with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Phillipe Herreweghe. I have been a great fan of this choral group and conductor for many years. The three pieces of unaccompanied Bruckner were for me the highlight.

The concert opened with a stark and rather rigid performance of Haydn's "Nelson" Mass. It was undoubtedly well performed, but did not warm my heart or sustain my soul. Perhaps I was just having an off night. Stravinsky's Symphony of Psalms, scored without violins or violas, has a solid depth of sound, giving a good contrast for the choral contributions. Again, this was a good account of the piece but my spirits were not raised. Bruckner's Ave Maria, Christus factus est, and Os Justi were where the choir shone and exhibited their tonal opulence to best advantage.

Concerto Italiano performed the last concert I attended at Greyfriars. It consisted of choral music by Monteverdi and orchestral interludes by Marini, Uccelini, Merulla, and Castello. It was the standard format of an orchestral piece followed by a choral piece. The concert finished with a performance of Monteverdi's Il Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda. The soloists were Anna Simboli, soprano, and Gianluca Ferrarini and Luca Dordolo, tenors. The tenor voices were not different enough. Without following the text, one might not have realised that one was hearing two different characters. Perhaps my knowledge of this period of singing is poor. I did not enjoy it: not even the mixture of soprano and tenor in Tancredi e Clorinda.

THE Royal Scottish National Orchestra were back on the platform of the Usher Hall, conducted by John Axelrod for a performance of Leonard Bernstein's Kaddish (Symphony No. 3). The opener for this concert was Barber's Violin Concerto. The interplay between the soloist and the orchestra was finely judged, and Vadim Gluzman gave a disciplined and authoritative performance as soloist.

The Bernstein performance was perhaps a travesty. Like the Barber, it was conducted by John Axelrod. He has made a commercial recording of this work. I am not familiar with the recording. This performance was, however, tweaked, the text being spun to reflect the particular perspective of a Holocaust survivor. This strikes me as rather strange, as Bernstein laboured to create a text with which he was happy. For the Tel Aviv première, Bernstein had his text translated into Hebrew, while the American première used his original English words. He later amended the text making it able to be delivered by a man or a woman.

The programme note rather lamely suggests that this work, like other large-scale Bernstein works has no clear directive or definitive form.

The Kaddish is scored for large orchestra, narrator, and soprano soloist. The soprano, Rebecca Evans sang with strength and conviction in her sections with the Edinburgh Festival Chorus and the National Youth Choir of Scotland National Girls Choir. The soprano part is small but makes a crucial contribution to this work.

The part of the narrator is virtually omnipresent. For this performance, narration was written and spoken by Samuel Pisar, a survivor of Auschwitz. According to the programme, he was a friend of Bernstein. Pisar's narration dates from 2003.

The narration in the printed programme was copyrighted to Pisar in 2014. I was, therefore, astonished that on several occasions during the performance, sections of his spoken narration were not printed, and large sections of what was in the programme were not narrated by Pisar.

The musical performance was of a high standard. The complex score, with much percussion, was clear, clean, and well balanced: a good result in the unforgiving acoustic of the Usher Hall. The choral singing was subtle. The wordless mutter that underpins the opening remarks of the speaker had great effect. This is a noisy score with great orchestral outbursts, perhaps representing religious wailing, the loudest of which comes at the opening of the finale.

I was left nonplussed by the muddled text. A small minority of the audience gave a standing ovation while Pisar basked in the limelight and Evans was relegated to a spot on the platform almost directly behind him. There was a keen sense that this was a one-man show.

I SAW only one play in the Fringe this year. The subject-matter was drawn from Flaubert's La Tentation de Saint Antoine: The Temptation of St Anthony. One of the earliest lines in the play is: "Is this the one from Padua?" That may have been a game-changer for some in the audience. The play was actually about St Anthony of Egypt: a disciple of Paul of Thebes, who withdrew for solitude to a mountain near the Nile called Pisir. During that time, he was troubled in his mind by the devil. He withstood many temptations and chal- lenges.

Teatro Cassone performed, in association with Mermaids, the Performing Arts Fund of the University of St Andrews. The style was what one might call contemporary burlesque. It had minimal props, but the characters all had arresting costumes. The performance style was full: there were no subtleties. St Anthony was played with grim despair by Adam Ishaque, notably in his scenes with death and the devil. Other characters were shared among the cast. Crowd scenes were conjured up by the use of hand puppets. The performance was over-long at one hour and 15 minutes. Some editing and greater interaction between characters will make a more engaging and convincing show.

More informally, I attended a variety of musical events at Old St Paul's Church, the Roman Catholic Metropolitan Cathedral, and the Episcopal Cathedral. The impressive factor at these venues is the sincerity and passion in the performances. They are always relaxing, and always a pleasure.

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