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Music review: the Edinburgh Festival

30 August 2019

William Dundas reviews the music of Sir James MacMillan and a Benjamin Britten War Requiem

Jane Hobson

Marking its 50th-anniversary year, Scottish Ballet gave the world première of The Crucible by Arthur Miller, choreographed by Helen Pickett, with music by Peter Salem, at the Edinburgh International Festival. The ballet will tour to the Theatre Royal, Glasgow (26-28 September), His Majesty’s Theatre, Aberdeen (3-5 October), and Eden Court, Inverness (9-10 October), before its US première at the Kennedy Center, Washington, DC, next May

Marking its 50th-anniversary year, Scottish Ballet gave the world première of The Crucible by Arthur Miller, choreographed by Helen Pickett, wi...

THE entirety of my Edinburgh Festivals this August has been a weekend devoted to the music of Sir James MacMillan and a Benjamin Britten War Requiem.

Slim pickings, one might think. Not at all! These performances have offered me the opportunity to relate to MacMillan the composer in a very empathetic way. He is celebrating being 60 this year, and I am accepting of being 61. We were both educated in Glasgow, and we both experienced the Edinburgh International Festival in the 1970s when we were in our teens. Indeed, the Orchestra de Paris, which performed the War Requiem, was one of the first foreign orchestras that I heard at the festival.

Scotland is very different from the place that it was in the 1970s. The Scottish Chamber Orchestra had only just been formed, and Simon Rattle was a junior conductor with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. The Edinburgh International Festival was a sort of multi-disciplined Glyndebourne. Its director, Peter Diamond, was a distinguished and patrician man, who would personally greet principal artists on the platform of Waverley Station as they arrived on a train from London. The spirit of these days is to be found in George Bruce’s book Festival in the North.

The most amazing thing about the performances that I attended was the high-quality of the works, the participants, and the audiences; and, as a result, I have been converted. I had never previously enjoyed the War Requiem. I have listened to it only once before in a London performance at the Royal Festival Hall conducted by Rostropovich, with Galina Vishnevskaya, I think, as the soprano soloist. At the end, the audience went wild. It had obviously been a great performance. I was underwhelmed and bemused.

My problems were several. I chose to attend as a reverential duty. I think I tried too hard to understand all of it: the texts, the music, the orchestration, and the politics. I was a young man. I was keen to experience the important pieces of 20th-century English music. I learned that if I was not enjoying a recording of a work, I should stop listening to it. I could try again in future. It was on my first hearing that I deserted the War Requiem for some 39 years.

On this occasion, I decided not to listen to any of it. I sat in the Usher Hall and allowed the music to fill my ears while following the text in my programme. It worked!

The Orchestra de Paris was conducted by its music director, Daniel Harding. The soloists were Emma Bell (soprano), Andrew Staples (tenor), and Florian Boesch (baritone). The Edinburgh Festival Chorus and the Girls Choir of the National Youth Choir of Scotland completed the list of performers.

Daniel Harding had been an assistant to Rattle and Claudio Abbado in his early career. The influence of both men continue to inform his no-nonsense presence on the podium. He does, however, have his own style, and his orchestra has an opulent tone and fine intonation. It produced a convincing Britten sound. It was, however, also its own sound. The players have great finesse. The subtlety of the tubular bells seemingly retreating into the distance is but one example. The vast orchestra was amply spread out across the stage, with the chamber orchestra at the front on the right-hand side.

Edinburgh International FestivalPart of this year’s fireworks display for the Edinburgh International Festival

Throughout the performance, there was a great sense of geographical landscape, as the representations of guns within the orchestra seemed to call and reply. The entire performance was atmospheric in this way. I feel sure that the epic and spacial qualities of the orchestral score were informed by this orchestra’s detailed knowledge of the works of Berlioz. The male soloists sculpted their texts with emotion and characterisation. In their one duet, about the young and the old man, I fleetingly sensed that they were singing a patter song. The soprano soloist was only ever the big gun of religious fervour. She and the chorus made a great impact, and never more so than in the explosive Sanctus. The chorus of girls sang from a marble lobby behind the grand circle. Their pure, clean sound carried well into the body of the hall.

I attended three of the MacMillan celebratory concerts. The first of those concerts was performed by the NYCoS in Greyfriars Kirk. They performed the Culham Motets, commissioned for the consecration of the new chapel of Christ the Redeemer at Culham Court in 2015. The texts were drawn from Psalms 24, 84, and 138, and the Canticle of Tobias. The choir were conducted by their inspiring artistic director, Christopher Bell. With all eyes fixed firmly on him, they sang with energy, precision, and phenomenal lung capacity in delivering the texts about water, incense, and light.

In the second work, All the Hills and Vales Along, an oratorio based on poems by Charles Hamilton Sorley, who died in the First World War, NYCoS teamed up with the forces of the Whitburn Band, including lots of percussion, the string quartet Quatuor Mona, plus a double base, and Gwilym Bowen (solo tenor). NYCoS more than held their own in delivering the text over some very challenging orchestration.

The second MacMillan concert was given in the Usher Hall by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Joana Carneiro. Both pieces were receiving their Scottish premières. A Scotch Bestiary, for orchestra and solo organ (Stephen Farr), is a virtuosic piece after The Carnival of the Animals, and uses a linking tune as in Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. It was originally written for a Los Angeles première. The other work was Woman of the Apocalypse. It is a tone poem whose five sections are inspired by, and in homage to, works of art. It was first performed in Santa Cruz. Although expressively played and conducted, neither work lingers in my mind.

The third MacMillan concert featured the world première of his Fifth Symphony: a symphony with an experiential sound world. It is Le grand Inconnu. The work was performed by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, The Sixteen, Genesis Sixteen, and conducted by Harry Christophers. Genesis Sixteen is The Sixteen’s free young artists’ scheme. The symphony was commissioned by the Genesis Trust.

In his programme note, the composer states that this is not a liturgical work, but deals with the qualities of wind, water, and fire, each being associated with the Holy Spirit. The symphony is in three sections: Ruah (Breath), Zoa (Living water) and Igne vel igne (Fire or fire).

This symphony begins with a sound. It is the sound of the choir breathing: unaccompanied, and breathing in and out. One is drawn in with rapt attention as the wind instruments in the orchestra also join in the breathing. This work is of about 50 minutes’ duration, and yet the composer’s curiosity and inventiveness seems not yet exhausted. This performance had been meticulously prepared. It was conducted in a crisp and direct manner. Some premières cannot avoid being failures. This was an instant and outstanding success: a myriad of musical ideas and technical perfection that disguised the extent of the music’s experimentation. Harry Christophers deserves all the credit for the success of this performance.

A well-behaved, silent audience applauded the performers enthusiastically. MacMillan was greeted with a standing ovation as he arrived on the platform to acknowledge the performers and his audience.

I was beguiled and thrilled. I shall certainly listen to the BBC recording when it is broadcast.

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