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Discipline in tone and movement

02 September 2016

William Dundas on the arts in Edinburgh



“Life’s but a walking shadow. . .” (Shakespeare): Edinburgh Castle in Deep Time

“Life’s but a walking shadow. . .” (Shakespeare): Edinburgh Castle in Deep Time

LARGE posters at key locations across Edinburgh proclaim Hello World in black text on a vivid yellow background. Not only do per­formers and audiences come to the Edin­burgh International Festival from all around the world, but the open­ing event this year was called Deep Time.

It was an audio-visual investiga­tion of 350 million years of Edin­burgh’s geological social and built environments with images projected on to Edinburgh Castle and the rock on which it stands. Full details and a video can be found at #deeptime.

The opening concert in the Usher Hall was performed by the Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia conducted by Sir Antonio Pappano. The first part of the concert featured orchestral pieces from operas by Rossini, Bellini, and Verdi. Not only did they offer a sense of development of composition in Italy, but each were from Shakespeare-inspired works. Pappano’s interpretations were light of touch, but also searching and illuminating.

The second part featured a fine quartet of soloists and the Edinburgh Festival Chorus (EFC) in a glorious performance of Rossini’s Stabat Mater. Pappano showed himself, and his assembled forces, to be subtle, nuanced, and robust as required at different points during this work: a great start to the Usher Hall concerts this festival.

Illness prevented my attending performances of Elgar’s The Apostles and Bach’s St Matthew Passion. I did, however, hear Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms, featuring the EFC. Marin Alsop, a pupil of Bernstein, placed the work at the beginning of the programme. This worked well. Her São Paulo Symphony Orchestra has great tone and togetherness, seem­ing to breathe and sound as one instru­ment. This gave a serene quality to this performance. The treble soloist, Taylor Torkington, although look­ing rather nervous, sang fluently and gently, and the EFC packed their usual punch.

The Queen’s Hall morning recitals can set one up for the day. My first this year was given by Nigel Short’s vocal group Tenebrae. A mostly Southern European first part was balanced by Austro-German offerings after the interval. Allegri’s Miserere mei, Deus was performed in the middle of the first part, thus containing it in an aural perspective rather than a statement opening or closing piece. I enjoyed the experience.

The Brahms, Bruckner, and Reger all worked very well and were pleas­ant on the ear. When the interval had allowed the earlier pieces to settle in the memory, Reger’s Der Mensch lebt und bestehet (Mankind lives and thrives but for a short time) was bright, expansive, and direct. Three pieces by Bruckner and Brahms allowed Short and his singers to show off their tonal and dynamic disciplines impressively.

Stephen Hough is a great pianist. He is great because he plays with a lucid clarity that allows almost every note to be heard. One might do better to watch his pedalling than his hands. His interpretations of Schubert and Liszt were illumin­ating; but the works by Franck and Hough himself which straddled the interval were the recital’s jewels.

Hough’s Piano Sonata III (Trinitas) was commissioned by The Tablet. The movements are titled Lento — bold, stark/Allegro — punchy jazzy/Andante — majestic, proud. This is a 12-note-row composition. The programme note made it very easy to follow. The numerous flurries of “Holy, Holy, Holy” derived from the hymn tune Nicaea were clear for all to hear. This was an interesting piece: one of those pieces that benefits from being played twice in one recital. I guess I shall be heading for the BBC iPlayer.

Scottish Ballet made a welcome return to the festival with a bravura performance of MC 14/22 (Ceci est mon corps). It is described as being “essentially a work about the Last Supper”. The production is inspired by biblical scenes. One must, however, imagine and decide for oneself what those scenes are.

There is plenty of scope for that. There are moments when all 12 men have their arms outstretched at shoulder level (crucifixion?). There are longish sections of repetitive movements of physical torture. There is a section of one-on-one torture where the dancer performs a proto-arabesque before being progressively inhibited by having his movements restricted by the application of brown parcel tape to his body: first to his head (crown of thorns?) and then to connecting limbs, until he has only one foot free to offer the bluntest minimalistic semblance of his original choreography. The Passion?

Angelin Preljoçaj has given us 55 minutes of choreography in which to ponder love, life, and violence. This is a precision piece to which the male dancers of Scottish Ballet gave their all.


SOME words now about the ever fulfilling Fringe. Although there was plenty to see and hear, I attended only two events: both in churches.

The first was in the Hot Chocolate at Ten series of concerts in Old St Paul’s Episcopal Church. This series of late-night concerts has been running for many years now. The deal is this. On arrival, one is served luxurious hot chocolate before the musical offerings.

On this occasion, I heard Sospiro Baroque, directed by Michael Bawtree. His orchestral and choral forces served up works by Valentini, Schutz, Vivaldi, and Bach. I listened to the Valentini Concerto for four violins from the back of the nave, where the sound separation worked well, allowing the different string voices to be heard to good advant­age. The whole ensemble gave a spirited account.

Next, the choir sang Schütz’s Selig Sind die Toten from the back wall of the nave. By this time, I was sitting more centrally in the nave. Hearing this sombre text sung from behind was almost like a warning to do one’s utmost in this life for reward in the next. I felt the need to redouble my efforts, going forward.

There followed a fine account of Vivaldi’s Bassoon Concerto. It was played by Christopher McShane on a modern instrument, through his agility and tone the instrument fitted well with the chamber orchestra and continuo. His talent was warmly received by the audience.

The concert concluded with a performance of J. S. Bach’s cantata Nach dir, Herr, verlanget mich, BWV 150. The electrical lighting was further dimmed, and the candlelit effect was enhanced. The text, being an affirmation of heavenly joy for a life of goodness and hard work, continued from the Schütz. The vocal soloists sang from within the body of the chorus. This worked well for the most part. Sadly for the soprano, her solo was projected across the nave and suffered a little from bouncing around so much. Altogether, the ensemble playing and choral singing was well articulated and balanced. Bawtree and his musicians received warm applause.

My other Fringe performance had taken place in St Mary’s Roman Catholic Cathedral. This was a lunchtime recital performed by the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland Voices under the direction of Timothy Dean. The music was English: works by William Byrd, John Sheppard, and Thomas Tallis.

This restricted fare offered a chance to evaluate the talents of the different composers and for each composer a sense of chronology. From a shallow crescent of singers on the steps of the sanctuary, the sound was rather white and lean. That, however, changed for Sheppard’s Libera Nos. The forces regrouped into three sides of a box. The sound was more blended and the tone richer. It is a pity that this had not been the format for the whole concert.

These music students gave of their best in all aspects. Their cohesion and tone were the most notable aspects of their emerging style.

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