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Seventy world-class years    

08 September 2017

William Dundas on his Edinburgh highlights, Festival and Fringe

© Beth Chalmers

Recording everything: Barry McGovern in Krapp’s Last Tape at the Edinburgh International Festival

Recording everything: Barry McGovern in Krapp’s Last Tape at the Edinburgh International Festival

THE Edinburgh International Festival (EIF), in 1947, had the aim of bringing reconciliation, through the performing arts, to a war-ravaged Europe. This August, the UK was negotiating terms for Brexit, but I am sure that the International and Fringe festivals can showcase European and world art, in Edinburgh, for a further 70 years.

I attended the opening EIF concert in the Usher Hall when Prince Edward was attending his first event as Patron, taking over from the Queen. The Scottish Chamber Orchestra was conducted by Pablo Heras Casado in Haydn’s “Surprise” Symphony and Mendelssohn’s Lobgesang (Symphony No 2).

Lobgesang (Hymn of Praise) is set for orchestra, chorus, two sopranos, and a tenor. The work begins with a long Sinfonia. It begins with broad, stately fanfares in the brass. Much of the time the sound of the joint forces was rather solid, while the tenor recitative and aria were sung cleanly with good phrasing, and the orchestration was sparse and sprightly. The chorus, “Saget es, die ihr . . .” flowed well, with nicely graded dynamics. The following soprano duet with chorus benefited from two clearly defined voices.

For me, this work holds little appeal. Despite a committed performance from all involved, I did not engage with it. The Haydn opened this concert, having opened the first concert in 1947: programming has moved on since then. Overall, the performance was light and fresh, but could have been more shapely and better articulated.

In Krapp’s Last Tape by Samuel Beckett, Krapp uses a reel-to-reel tape recorder. Since he was a young man, he has recorded his thoughts each year on his birthday. He records in a ledger which year is on which spool of tape, and which spools are in which numbered storage tin: a life summarised in a recorded archive. Barry McGovern gave a nuanced performance of great perspective and pathos. The direction of Michael Colgan let us see that in spirit the 69-year-old Krapp felt not unlike his 39-year-old self. The humorous peeling of a banana skin into six flaps was a stylised sense of careless freedom. The serious business of creating his new tape and re-listening to some of his old ones, however, made clear that he no longer shared the thoughts, views, standards of his younger self.

As in all Beckett’s works, almost nothing happens on the stage. McGovern succeeded in making the action happen in my head. I was processing Krapp’s thoughts with my thoughts. Another cerebral workout.

The 11-o’clock morning recitals tend to be significant events. Andreas Haefliger gave a stunning piano recital in this series. The composers were Berg, Liszt, Beethoven, and Mussorgsky.

Like many great pianists, Haefliger inspires confidence in the listener that he and the piano are as one. His touch, pedalling, and phrasing are almost imperceptible. Everything seems to be naturally correct and beguiling. The programme was beguiling, because the links between the pieces were to do with sound patterns. The most obvious was the imitation of bird sounds and birdsong. Liszt’s St Francis of Assisi’s Sermon to the Birds is a maelstrom. The need here is to spin the line just to the limit and to draw it back as if it were a circular journey. The Beethoven Piano Sonata in A major, Op. 101, has chattering exchanges towards the end of the first movement.

In Mussorgsky’s Pictures from an Exhibition, the obvious need here is for the pianist as colour the music as a painter conjures up scenes of light and shade on canvas. The varying expositions of the “Promenade” were well judged. The opening was a tour de force, the second sounded like two voices, the fifth had a sense of keen anticipation, but was, none the less, spacious.

In “Tuileries” there were reminiscences of birdsong from Liszt’s St Francis. An amazing sense of hovering spirits was conjured up in “Con mortise in lingua mortua”. “The Great Gate of Kiev” was expansive, strong, and affirmative. As he was taking his numerous calls, the pianist seemed to be staring out beyond the hall as if watching his pianism travel from the hall and out into infinity.

Alfred Brendel gave a talk, “My Musical Life”, on a stage as barely furnished as the set for Krapp’s Last Tape. We moved through his life at a modest pace, covering ground from Zagreb to Vienna and to London, where he settled in the 1950s. He offered some profound thoughts and a plethora of anecdotes: entertaining and humorous in a formal way. He featured a few excerpts of recording by his mentors and concluded with one of his playing an Impromptu by Schubert. It was rather telling when towards the end of the piece he placed his left hand on the desk and silently “played” a bar or so on the surface. He seems to have itchy fingers.

I Fagiolini, directed by Robert Hollingworth, performed a Monteverdi Vespers: those of 24 June 1620, celebrating the Nativity of St John the Baptist. My initial impression was that the singing was swamped by the orchestra in the tuttis. There was much moving around the platform by the various forces, but it was not until after the interval, when the singers held centre stage, on two tiered levels, and the instrumentalists played from the sides towards the centre of the stage, that the sound became a well-balanced blend. That said, this was a fine performance, two notable highlights being the Beatus vir and the hymn “Ut quant laxis”.

Iestyn Davies was accompanied by the Academy of Ancient Music, directed by Richard Egarr, performing Bach cantatas. The first being, Contented rest, beloved inner joy, BWV 170. Here he was able to showcase his sense of line and rhythm. The text dealing with dark and sinful issues gave much opportunity for phrasing and colouring in his voice. The second cantata, Spirit and soul become confused, BWV 35, gave Davies the opportunity to sing with the other soloists. They were Emily Mitchell (soprano), Malcolm Bennett (tenor), and Arthur Bruce (bass). After a substantial Sinfonia, Part I follows a pattern of aria, recitative, and aria. The opening aria is grand and features much repitition, the recitative flows very gently, and the second aria is very succinct. Part II has a format of Sinfonia, recitative, and aria. The text being in praise of God offers much open and joyous singing among the soloists. In both pieces, the orchestral forces were refined, and supportive of the singers.


PERFORMANCES of Verdi’s Requiem are not rare. This was a rare performance for me, for two reasons. I have steered clear of it since the early 1990s. It had become jaded in the memory.

This performance was special. It was performed by the Orchestra and Chorus of the Teatro Regio of Turin, conducted by Gianandrea Noseda.

The opening Requiem Aeternum came in hushed tones: pure tones. There was none of that hissing or chittering that one often hears when a chorus sings very softly. They also had the required attack in the Dies Irae. They also had the required pace and breath control to negotiate the Sanctus with assurance and panache. It must be acknowledged that some of that panache was inspired by placing of the trumpets in the back row of the orchestra. The solo quartet were supported in their singing by the strength of sound coming from the lower strings. The quartet also blended gloriously in the different sections of the Offertorio.

The orchestral playing throughout was stunning in technique and tone. The general approach Noseda took seemed to prefer style over swagger. His preferred tempi and a sense of orchestral balance allowed the singing and the playing to showcase each other. Needless to say, the Libera Me with its see-sawing emotions brought the performance to a dignified close. Noseda maintained a silence in the hall for nearly one minute. When it did happen, the applause was thunderous.

I then listened to the Orchestra of La Scala, Milan, who offered two of Verdi’s four sacred pieces. The Stabat Mater opened the concert, giving the orchestra and their conductor, Riccardo Chailly, many opportunities to show off their sections and soloists. They have a distinctive sound and a great sense of playing as one instrument. Verdi’s sound-world here is less than familiar: at times shrill and rather straggly. The EIF Chorus seemed slightly ill at ease in this piece: well rehearsed, good sectional entries, but just not seeming to flow effortlessly. They ended well with their crescendo with the organ, followed by the upper strings and harps drifting away.

From the soft choral entry of the tenors in the Te Deum, to the full orchestra and chorus in the Sanctus, this was a more assured performance. There followed the pastoral treatment of “Te gloriosus” and ended with the very broad and calm treatment of “Miserere nostri”. The orchestral playing was most notable for the purity of tone and eveness.

The concert also served up fine performance of two works by Respighi: The Fountains of Rome and The Pines of Rome. Both pieces showcased the skills of the orchestral sections. In the Pines, the orchestra was able to show off its muscle and stamina, moving towards the final climax without hesitation. My only slight disappointment is that the additional brass fanfares in the closing bars were not as spatially distinct as they could have been. Chailly clearly loves this orchestra. The Usher Hall audience loved them both.


MY FIRST Fringe event was Lord Dismiss Us, from Boys of the Empire Productions. This story is from a novel by Michael Campbell, and has been adapted for the stage by Glenn Chandler, the creator of Taggart. It is a humorous romp through boarding-school life. Think of Waugh’s Decline and Fall infused with some of the grandeur of Brideshead, and the scene is set. A new and homophobic headmaster seeks to pull the school back to normality and decency. He is on a hiding to nothing. His devout Christian wife is in awe of the chaplain, but he is one of the senior gays. Two of the pupils, Carlton and Naylor, are in love. Needless to say, forging change is difficult, and there are some casualties. Keen performances all round drew laughter and strong applause. There is a limited run at the Above the Stag Theatre, London, from 25 Octobter until 19 November (www.abovethestag.com).

Mary and Me is the first play by Irene Kelleher, directed by Belinda Wild, and was inspired by the story of a 15-year-old girl who died alone, in childbirth, while on a visit to a grotto. Presented as a fiction based on reality, it traces the victim’s association with the grotto, from a first visit to ask for success in an upcoming exam. She passes the exam. She uses the grotto as a place of self-expression and development. She uses the grotto as a refuge, and the statue of our Lady as a confidante. The text is delivered in a rapid-fire style, for all the world like Mrs Doyle from Father Ted: a simple honesty laid bare.

Like a Prayer by Corrine Maier is experimental, stylish, and insightful, but ultimately it is over-long. A man and a woman are on stage. They discuss attitudes to religion and cross over points. They even create intersecting rectangles on the floor with different colours of tape. A friend tells them to pray for deliverance. They then enter into video scenes of them interacting with nuns in a convent. The message is simple. If you live your life well, it will be your prayer of deliverance.

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