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Music review: Edinburgh International Festival 2023

08 September 2023

William Dundas hears offerings in Edinburgh’s International Festival

© Mihaela Bodlovic

Clay Hilley sang Tannhäuser in the concert performance at Edinburgh

Clay Hilley sang Tannhäuser in the concert performance at Edinburgh

NICOLA BENEDETTI, Edinburgh International Festival Director and Scottish solo violinist, has delivered her first festival. It was a heady mix of opera, classical music, contemporary music, dance, and theatre.

She hosted educational introductions to several performances alongside some of the musicians who would be playing the pieces in the performance. They were described as Deep Dives: I didn’t get wet! I did, however, attend concerts played by orchestras with four concert residencies.

I attended a Budapest Festival Orchestra concert, conducted by Iván Fischer. The programme was rather rustic in character. Romanian Folk Dances, Seven Choruses for female voice, choir, and orchestra. The other pieces were Bartók’s Third Piano Concerto and the Dances of Galanta by Kodály. The Romanian Folk Dances were performed in their original rustic form, by a string trio, before being performed in Bartók’s adaptation for small orchestra of 1917. I must admit that the string trio produced gutsy sounds and chaotic rhythms. They were a revelation. I did, however, fail totally to identify any of them in orchestral form. Fischer was amazingly skilled in bringing to the orchestral performance many of the flicks and inflections from the original dances.

Sir András Schiff was stylish and at ease in his delivery of the Third Piano Concerto. He and Fischer meshed the solo piano and orchestral accompaniment seamlessly, but without blunting rhythmic contrasts along the way. The second movement, Adagio religioso, alludes to religious titles given to movements in works by Beethoven. In this movement, oboe, flute, and clarinet soloists exchange phrases with the piano, suggesting the darkness of night. The third movement is a new day populated with American jazz-coloured themes and glimpses of J. S. Bach.

The Girls’ Choir of the National Youth Choir of Scotland (NYCOS) sang the Seven Choruses. The stage had the orchestra on the left and the girls on the right. The scarlet girls’ uniforms helped to emphasise that they were the equals of the orchestra. The choruses were simple accounts of rural peasant life sung in a simple, almost chanting, delivery. Among them were “Hussar”, “Don’t Leave Me”, “Bread-baking”, and the “Boys’ Teasing Song”. This was simple fare performed with clarity and feeling.

The Dances of Galanta brought the concert to a loud, fast, and brash end. That was a pity.

Britten’s Rejoice in the Lamb and Duruflé’s Requiem were performed by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra (RSNO), conducted by Christopher Bell. The full forces of NYCOS were joined by Catriona Morison (mezzo-soprano) and Paul Grant (baritone). Britten’s piece was performed in the orchestral arrangement by Imogen Holst. It was a joyous opener to this concert, with its rounded and colourful choral writing. It is amazing how Bell instills in his choir the ability to breathe as one voice and hold the orchestral line. This gives all their performances a confident pace and flow.

Duruflé’s Requiem was given a sedate but beautifully nuanced performance. Both the soloists’ distinct voices were able to blend with both NYCOS and the RSNO. The highlights were the Kyrie, Pie Jesu, the Agnus Dei, with the woodwind and strings, and the In Paradisum with harp intro. Overall, it was a well-balanced and -paced performance.

I strayed from religiosity by attending an all-Chopin piano recital. Mikhail Pletnev was in very sober form, delivering a very academic recital. By that I mean that he gave us each phrase with the utmost sincerity and gravity. It would be wrong to imply that the audience were denied flowing lines, rubato, and sentiment. They were all present throughout the recital, but mostly I found the required concentration somewhat exhausting. This performance was recorded for future broadcast on BBC Radio 3.

The London Symphony Orchestra (LSO), conducted by Sir Simon Rattle, delivered a concert of contrasts. He conducted the Stabat Mater by Karol Szymanowski as one would expect from him. All of the musical layers were interleaved, creating a musical tapestry. The Edinburgh Festival Chorus (EFC) were clear, confident, and well supported by the colouring and pacing of the orchestral accompaniment. I admired this robust and direct interpretation by Rattle.

His treatment of the German Requiem of Brahms had less appeal for me. It lacked the plush comfort and stately progress that it normally exudes. Rattle seemed to be wilfully pushing down on the score and was micro-managing sections within sections. It seemed to me that he was using a Mahlerian filter. That said, the orchestra, chorus, and soloists performed as a team, Florian Boesch singing from the front of the orchestra, and Iwona Sobotka from the back, entering during a brief pause. This provided an opportunity for a brief tuning-up in the orchestra. Any impact was not apparent to me. Both soloists sang well, creating an atmosphere befitting the texts, and the EFC sang with their usual clarity, drive, and poise.

Wagner’s opera Tannhäuser is the telling of a simple short story in a time span of some three-and-a-half hours. Donald Runnicles brought his orchestra and chorus of the Deutsche Oper Berlin, to Edinburgh. This concert-performance orchestra was augmented with musicians from the RSNO.

Runnicles laid out his broad, and almost literal sense of this great work from the start. The orchestral portrayal of the Venusberg really was a struggle, tossing between the pleasures of the flesh and the calm repose of a life lived in service to the Virgin Mary. Having fled to the countryside, close to the court of Wartburg, Tannhäuser, sung by Clay Hilley, reflects on his chequered life with remorse. Herman, the Landgrave, accompanied by a group of musicians, wins Tannhäuser over and persuades him to return to the Wartburg. There is much delicate and emotional music in these passages, and Runnicles delivered it very well. Unfortunately, the passages where the soloists sang together were drowned out by over-loud playing in the orchestra.

The second act contains all the splendour of Elisabeth’s reminiscences of Tannhäuser and song competitions in the great hall. The tenderness of the brief reconciliation of the two lovers and the brass fanfares that accompany the courtiers arriving for this new song contest was where Runnicles’s masterful ability to balance the brass fanfares, the orchestral swagger, and the vocal contributions of a variety of soloists proved his Wagnerian credentials.

Tannhäuser has agreed to make a pilgrimage to Rome. The third act opens shrouded in remorse. Elisabeth and Wolfram sing of their hopes of Tannhäuser’s return from Rome. Elizabeth sings ardently but eloquently to the Virgin that she may redeem Tannhäuser through her death. Left by himself, Wolfram sings to the Evening Star for her protection. He sang with implicit purity and desire for her safety.

Tannhäuser arrives alone and in anguish. The Pope’s staff remains barren. There is no hope for Tannhäuser, but, as Elisabeth’s funeral procession approaches, he asks Holy Elisabeth to pray for him. Pilgrims enter with the Pope’s staff. It has sprouted green leaves. They are the symbol of Tannhäuser’s redemption. Joyous singing and a blending of orchestral themes held the audience in respectful silence, before much fervent applause.

The closing concert was played by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, sung by the EFC, and conducted by a rising star, Karina Canellakis. Her programme seemed odd on paper, but in performance it linked a series of emotional pieces of music. Wagner’s Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan, Scriabin’s Poem of Ecstasy, and Rachmaninov’s The Bells.

Canellakis’s conducting style is unfussy, clear, and peppered with effective cues for the musicians. The Wagner seemed to represent the beginning and end of the Festival. The Scriabin represented the span of the Festival. The Bells symbolised a joyous farewell. The orchestra responded well to Canellakis’s conducting, as did the EFC and the three vocal soloists, Olga Kulchynska, David Butt Philip, and Alexander Vinogradov, sang well in the embrace of the orchestra. A festive end to a Festival.

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