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Music review: the Edinburgh International Festival

07 September 2018

William Dundas makes his concluding report from the Edinburgh International Festival

© ryan buchanan

Fireworks provided a spectacular finale to the Edinburgh International Festival

Fireworks provided a spectacular finale to the Edinburgh International Festival

THROUGHOUT the Dunedin Consort’s Edinburgh International Festival performance of Handel’s oratorio Samson, there was much to admire and enjoy.

The Overture gave the listener confidence that the evening would be filled with music that was spacious and yet flowing, fleet of foot and elegantly phrased. The attack of the strings, the incisiveness of the woodwind, and punchiness of the brass and timpani created a fresh and lively atmosphere.

The Act I opening recitative for Samson (Paul Appleby) ends with the words fresh flowing, pure and sweet. The Israelites’ chorus proved themselves capable of firm entries with a noble depth of tone. In closing Act I with “Then round about the starry throne”, they displayed a good sense of flow, with clear enunciation.

Micah (Alice Coote), a friend of Samson, sang the Act II air “Return, O God of hosts; behold thy servant in distress” with gravitas. Subtly graded orchestral playing brought the subsequent Israelites’ chorus to a fine conclusion.

The air of the Philistine Woman, sung by Louise Alder, and beginning with the words “With plaintive notes and amorous moan”, was sung with emotion and grace. There follow further exchanges between Samson and Dalila (Sophie Bevan), leading to a duet that bristled with spirited orchestral attack. It sets the scene for both of them to sing of betrayed love.

Towards the end of Act II, Samson and Harapha (a giant) share a very dramatic duet, Samson singing “Go, baffled coward, go” to Harapha’s retort “Presume not on thy God” (sung by David Soar). A spirited double chorus of the Priests of Dagon and the other vocal soloists and the Israelites brings Act II to an upbeat conclusion. The Priests sing of giving the day to song and dance, while the soloists and Israelites sing of Jehovah/Great Dagon ruling the world in state.

A highlight of Act III is Samson’s last appearance, in which he sings of the finality of death. He sang with great poise, then exited the stage. Following soon after is an air for Manoah (Samson’s father), sung by Matthew Brook. With great feeling and a sonorous dignified flow, he acknowledged his paternal love for his son with no sight. Soon after, the orchestra were showcased in the Symphony of Horror and Confusion. With a deft hand, John Butt drew well-crafted bad sounds. Moving swiftly to the end, the Israelites, Manoah, and Micah all sing with a positive view of Samson’s demise and legacy.

Solomon ends with two showstoppers: “Let the bright seraphim” and “Let their celestial concerts all unite”. Louise Alder as the Israelite Woman sang the former with grace and fluency, accompanied by the consort and a solo trumpet. The latter was sung by the Israelites. John Butt set a brisk pace for his massed forces.

The interval performances of movements from Handel organ concertos were played on a modern copy of an organ by Richard Bridge and Thomas Parker. It was loaned for this performance by the Handel House Trust. I enjoyed hearing Stephen Farrr’s cleanly articulated playing waft out of the auditorium and around the marble lobbies of the Usher Hall.

My next performance was in the same hall and featured the Bamberger Symphoniker, the Edinburgh Festival Chorus, and a quartet of vocal soloists. The performance of Dvoŕák’s Requiem was conducted by Jakůb Hruša, the orchestra’s chief conductor.

Hruša conducted this work with verve and panache. My perception is that he drove it too hard and at times far too loud. From my seat in the stalls, the first and second violins were barely audible in some loud passages.

This work has beautifully phrased sections for orchestra, chorus, and soloists; they do not last very long, however, before Dvorák stops them dead in their tracks by “galloping” timpani accompanied by abrupt outbursts in the woodwind and brass sections. The Edinburgh Festival Chorus were on grand form, and made the most of Dvoŕák’s quite varied choral writing, excelling in the “Quid sum miser” and “Quam olim Abrahae”. The quartet of vocal soloists — Eva Hornyaková, soprano; Václava Krejcí Housková, mezzo-soprano; Pavel Cernoch, tenor; and Jan Martiník, bass — all sang well in their solos, duets, and other combinations. Sadly, however, they did not share a common pronunciation throughout all sections of the mass.

For my finale, I attended a two-piano recital by Pierre-Laurent Aimard and Tamara Stefanovich, featuring Brahms’s Sonata for Two Pianos in F minor, Op. 34b, and Messiaen’s Visions de l’Amen. The Brahms piece is in four movements and was published in 1872.

The Messiaen piece was first performed in 1943. It has seven sections, and the notes are shared very unequally. Stefanovich mostly played the upper octaves repetitively at very fast speeds, and Aimard drove the tempi and structural growth, and set the dynamics of the pieces. From the very first notes, I was held in thrall.

The first movement, “The Amen of Creation”, is followed by the Amens of: the Stars of the Ringed Planet; the Agony of Jesus; Desire; Angels, Saints, and Birdsong; Judgement; and Consummation. The work weaves through the themes’ gaining organic strength. At various points, the sound is intense and commanding. “The Amen of Consummation” created the sensation of an unstoppable, energised force of affirmation and pealing bells.

When the playing ceased, both players managed to prevent any applause, perhaps for one full minute. In that time, the sound decayed. That was very satisfying: perhaps like the lingering smell of incense after a high service.

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