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Great Berlioz and Beethoven nights

by
11 September 2015

William Dundas took his pick from the Edinburgh Festival

© EDINBURGH INTERNATIONAL FESTIVAL SOCIETY

All lit up: a moment in the light show on the Usher Hall, Edinburgh, for Harmonium by John Adams

All lit up: a moment in the light show on the Usher Hall, Edinburgh, for Harmonium by John Adams

THE Edinburgh International Festival had three things to celebrate this year. The first was a new Festival Director in Fergus Linehan; the second was the 50th anniversary of the Edinburgh International Festival Chorus (EIFC); and the third was a revision of its performance dates, returning them to full synchronisation with the Edinburgh Festival Fringe (Arts, 4 September) and the Edinburgh Military Tattoo. Both the Festival and the Fringe have reported increased box-office sales.

The EIFC starred in the first performance of the festival: a free outdoor event in the Lothian Road was closed to traffic and drew an audience of about 20,000 people. This was a broadcast of a recording of John Adams’s Harmonium performed by the EIFC with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra conducted by Peter Oundjian. The visual aspect was a series of spectacular animations projected on to the Usher Hall. The technical team was 59 Productions working with the University of Edinburgh’s School of Informatics and Edinburgh College of Art.

The effect was amazing, and the audience responded with great enthusiasm. Perhaps some of them will be inspired to join the chorus.

The formal opening concert contained three choral pieces by Brahms, and Ein Heldenleben by Richard Strauss, performed by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Donald Runnicles. Ein Heldenleben received a glorious, opulent, and atmospheric performance with fine solo violin playing by Laura Samuel. This was indeed a festive piece of music suited to an opening concert.

Brahms’s Gesang der Parzen, Liebeslieder Walzer, and Schicksalslied, although well played and sung, were heavy and somewhat solid. Only Schicksalslied had joyous festival emotion. The contribution of the EIFC was grand, but this was a concert of two very different halves.

One of this year’s undoubted highlights was the performance of Alessandro Striggio’s Missa sopra Ecco si beato giorno in 40 parts. It was performed by Le Concert Spirituel, conducted my their founder, Hervé Niquet. As is common in performances today, this Mass was performed with other works interpolated before, between, and after the sections of the Ordinary, giving a convincing concert as a whole.

The stage was bare, and offstage there could be heard a procession of plainchant, and a band of cornets, dulcians, sackbuts, cello, double bass, and regal. The onstage instruments were a chamber organ and harpsichord. The effect was splendid, and the atmosphere was expectant. The orchestral layout was a very tight horseshoe, with the conductor in the middle and the choir behind the instrumentalists. Niquet was conducting almost from the middle of a circle.

Initially, his conducting technique seemed almost flashy, but it soon became clear that not a gesture was wasted. The performance was crystal-clear, and relaxed but grand in effect.

Although the work was composed in 40 parts (five choirs of eight), the text was always clear and easy to follow. The other composers featured were Francesco Corteccia, Claudio Monteverdi, and Orazio Benevolo. The concert was, however, Striggio’s. The highlights were the Gloria and the Agnus Dei.

 

THE absolute showpiece for the 50th anniversary of the EIFC was the performance of the Grande Messe des Morts by Berlioz. The orchestra was the Philharmonia conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen.

My introduction to this work was a televised broadcast from Les Invalides in Paris in the early 1970s. There was a huge orchestra and chorus. The conductor was Leonard Bernstein, and the tenor soloist Stuart Burrows. This performance left a great impression on me. It also captured the attention of others, including customers in a London record shop where I worked many years ago. Whenever I played the “Lacrymosa”, people would ask what was being played, and would often buy the recording.

I have heard this work performed in the Usher Hall five times. This performance stood head and shoulders above the others. The placing of the brass bands around the hall is an acoustical nightmare. It is not possible to place a brass band in each corner of the hall. Some have tried and failed: not Salonen! He arranged the brass as if they were in a church. One was in the middle of the back row of the chorus, the second in the middle of the dress circle at the back of the hall, and the final two were placed in balconies to the front and side of the orchestra. This equated to being placed in the choir, nave, and transepts of a cathedral. The effect was magnificent.

I have never before been so aware of the constant contribution of the cellos in this piece. When the whole orchestra is not employed, it is the cellos that hold everything together. From the opening bars, the string sound was even and pure, spreading ethereally from the first violins to the seconds and violas. The effect captured the ear, and the tone of the entire performance had been set.

The quiet singing of the chorus in the opening Requiem and Kyrie was a revelation. I have on previous occasions heard the EIFC singing quietly in pieces by Berlioz, and it sounded like the rustling of whispers. In this performance, the singing was focused, rounded, and smooth.

The Dies Irae was muscular and elegant. The brass band sounded to great effect, Salonen turning away from the orchestra to face the lead brass band at the back of the hall. The climactic sound of the full orchestra, brass, timpani, and chorus was full and well balanced.

Salonen’s great achievement was in balancing the orchestra at all times and allowing the complex rhythms and dynamics the space and time they needed to make their full effect. The “Rex tremendae”and “Lacrymosa” were the other notable examples of this.

The lightness of the choral singing in the “Quid sum miser” and the weight of the text in “Quaerens me” were vehicles to exhibit the confidence and skill of the chorus.

It was only when the performance reached the “Hostias” that I realised that the only brass on the stage were the horns. The remaining trombones and trumpets were in their brass-band locations around the hall. With the flutes playing from the stage, this created the most eerie sound effect, seeming like drifting incense.

The Sanctus, another section with a seemingly distilled essence, alternating between the chorus and the tenor soloist, was carefully balanced between the faster and slower sections. The tenor solo is a key part of the Sanctus. The tenor soloist, Lawrence Brownlee, seemed to struggle with the tessitura, perhaps because he had been sitting on the platform since the beginning of the performance. His voice had a thick texture and distorted vowels. This is a great shame, because his delivery from halfway back in the chorus was commanding.

The Agnus Dei brings a wonderful resolution to this very large and long work. The final section from “Requiem aeternam” to the closing Amen was light, sparingly and contemplatively played, seemingly drifting to the Amen underpinned by the timpani.

The performance was an absolute tour de force.

 

ANOTHER performance where brass was to the fore was En avant, marche! It was presented by the National Theatre of Gent, Les ballets C de la B, and the Dalkeith and Monktonhall Brass Band.

This is a piece of experimental ballet theatre. At its heart is community: community involvement. It perceives the brass band (any institution) as a microcosm of society.

At the heart of this community is a trombone player, Wim Opbrouck. He is ill and can no longer play the trombone, but he still contributes to the music by playing the cymbals.

The performance opens with him shambling on to the stage in his stockinged soles carrying a cassette player and a pair of cymbals. He starts the player. We hear the Prelude to Lohengrin. He waits impatiently for his time to play the cymbals.

He is impatient. He fast-forwards the cassette, but he has gone too far. He has to rewind it. When the time comes, he plays the cymbals on time and with relish. Is this perhaps a metaphor for all life?

In come two women, Griet De Backer and Chris Thys, who frantically lay out the seating for the rehearsal, and then a trombonist, Hendrik Lebon. He sits and quietly rehearses. The band gradually arrives, and there are all sorts of interactions between the members. The most notable is a fevered sexual dance between the trombonist and one of the women. The other woman attends to the cymbal player. He indulges in much gargling and throat-clearing. She is his willing assistant. Are there really two women, or are these split aspects of only one?

The conductor, Steven Prengels, appears, and conducts to silence. The band put their uniforms on and play “Nimrod” by Elgar. This has long been used as an accompaniment to pain and strife.

There follows a variety of scenes. There is a scene where one member plays a tune using only the mouthpiece of his instrument, another where a tuba player starts clapping his hand down on to the mouthpiece of his instrument (attached to the instrument), creating an open note. The others on the other side of the stage do the same with their instruments, creating a song without words.

There is a homage to a classical pas de deux between the young trombonist and the ill trombonist. Is the experience of the older man being passed on to the younger man, or is this the older man revisiting his life through the younger man? It is difficult to decide.

The performance ends with a performance of “I vow to thee, my country”. As I luxuriated in the sound of a full brass band, the lights went off, and the music stopped one note short of the end. Another metaphor for life? This was a performance stimulating imaginative thoughts. There were no definitive messages. It was fun.

 

THE Austrian pianist Rudolf Buchbinder performed the complete Beethoven Sonatas in the Playfair Library of the University of Edinburgh Old College.

This is a fine room of classical proportions with a barrel-vault ceiling. The piano was situated at the far end, on a raised platform of about four feet. I was sitting near the back of the seating, about halfway back through the hall. The sound was good, but not lively. I realised that the carpet runner had not been lifted from the floor, but, by lifting my head towards the ceiling, a more lively sound could be gained.

The big piece in this recital was the “Appassionata”. Buchbinder played with great ease and assurance, giving free reign to Beethoven’s fierce musical arguments, before drawing them back in for redevelopment. Time and again he drew us in to a re-listening to detail and phrasing. After the ramblings of this mighty sonata, he played the last movement of the “Tempest” as an encore. By comparison, it seemed to be a distilled refinement. It was great to hear them side by side.

 

MY FINAL performance was the Missa Solemnis by Beethoven, performed by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Robin Ticciati. The EIFC was joined by the soloists Genia Kühmeier, Gerhild Romberger, Michael Schade, and Georg Zeppenfeld.

This was a micromanaged performance by Ticciati. He seemed to need us to be very aware of Beethoven’s tempi and volume changes. This was a sound performance, but for the reason given I found it a bit disjointed.

The Scottish Chamber Orchestra gave a clean-cut performance, and the vocal soloists blended well. The chorus sang well, but this work cruelly exposed their weakness. They need new and younger members. Beethoven’s writing, especially for the sopranos, tested them to their limits. The weakest point was the closing section of the Credo. Curiously, the high point was the opening of the Sanctus, which follows the Credo.

All in all, this was a fine performance, marred only by two pathetic shouts of bravo at the final bars. The conductor did not flinch, and the audience remained silent for a further 40 seconds before giving the appropriate applause.

This was a fine 50th season for the EIFC. I wish them a secure future.

 

Several of these performances will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 between 15 and 18 September.

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