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Music: Edinburgh International Festival

03 September 2021

This year, the Festival resumed gloriously, says William Dundas

William Dundas

Auditorium in the Old College Quad, University of Edinburgh, for the Edinburgh International Festival

Auditorium in the Old College Quad, University of Edinburgh, for the Edinburgh International Festival

AFTER a gap year, the Edinburgh International Festival (EIF) returned with outdoor venues, like a fledgling Waldbühne/Berlin, Ravinnia/Chicago, or Tanglewood/Boston.

A gap year is normally followed by renewed study, and my two EIF performances were given in open-air concert halls at two of Edinburgh’s finest academic institutions, the Edinburgh Academy Junior School and the Old College Quad of the University of Edinburgh.


THE BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra is a fine orchestra. This concert, gloriously performed as it was, on a sunny early autumn evening, impels me to make a big effort to hear them again soon. I was seated in the centre of this tented, open-sided hall, and almost halfway back, with views of imposing Victorian villas to my left and modern school buildings to my right.

The concert opened with Strum by Jessie Montgomery. From the strongly articulated pizzicato opening, the energy of this piece caught my attention, and the alternation between that and the more lyrical sections lulled me into a secure dual perspective until the brief but forceful pizzicato conclusion stopped me dead.

This was followed by A Spell for Green Corn by Peter Maxwell Davies. The title alludes to the Orkney tradition of having a fiddle-player to play in the fields before the sowing of the new season’s crops.

A stern opening for solo violin with just the slightest hints of Aaron Copland, played by the leader, developed into a sequence of duos between the solo violin and the different sections of the orchestra. After some imposing brass, there were chirpy interjections from the woodwind indicative of birdcalls. The scene had been set. The work of the day was being done. A pibroch (bagpipe) sound suggested merriment and partying, at first in the fields and then inside into the wee small hours.

This was a rhapsody to nature performed in a green field in Edinburgh, but I was transported, imagining vistas of the Orkney Islands, where Davies had spent much of his life.

There followed a performance of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, conducted by Alsop without a score. She had been influenced greatly by Leonard Bernstein. I have a vintage LP recording of a concert lecture by him outlining Beethoven’s sketches and subsequent developments of the thematic material of this symphony. Alsop may well have listened to it, because her account of the symphony was fresh, spry, and ultimately monumental.

The opening movement was beautifully accented by the woodwind, even in the loudest sections. The lower strings quickly establishing the tone in the second movement, there followed some rare moments of surprise, as when familiar phrases sounded better for being burnished by the horns. This was perhaps the core, the soul, of this performance, where the beautiful phrasing was articulated by the timpani over a warm undercurrent in the strings.

The third movement began with a heavy, solemn tread in the strings, which was gently lifted by soothing entries from the flutes and bassoons. The finale had unbounded energy, enhanced by unhurried phrasing and well-judged dynamics. This had been a performance that I had not just heard, but truly been part of.


RENÉE FLEMING, accompanied by Hartmut Höll, sang a varied repertoire, dipping into Handel, Fauré, Strauss, and Grieg, among others. Her spoken interaction was both genuine and sincere. She both conveyed her relief at being able to perform to a live audience again, and recounted how she had come to value the outdoors and nature, and her choice of songs reflected that.

This recital had been created for this EIF performance, and some of it for a new album. Her characterisation and her musicality made for an engaging recital. She and Höll are an intuitive team. Seek them out.

She made a strong impact in her delivery of a group of songs by Grieg: recent additions to her repertoire. Of course, she gave us some beautiful Strauss, Handel, and Fauré. Her renditions of the songs by Fauré allowed her to showcase her subtle nuances of tone and colour.

We were also given Both Sides Now by Joni Mitchell, who had been a teenage inspiration, and the world première of Evening by Kevin Puts, which had been written specifically for her. She was generous in her encores by Strauss and Puccini. It is in her singing of Strauss and Puccini that one can hear where her discipline has been honed.


Various EIF 2021 performances can be listened to on BBCSounds.

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