Edinburgh International Festival: Classical round-up Week 1

There is a sadness in seeing scaled-down orchestras, but the performances remain exhilarating and moving, writes Ken Walton.
The SCO’s principal double bassist, Nikita Naumov.The SCO’s principal double bassist, Nikita Naumov.
The SCO’s principal double bassist, Nikita Naumov.

I’ve been feeling a bit like Vashti, the central character in E M Forster’s 1909 futuristic novella The Machine Stops, in which humanity has entrenched itself in enforced underground isolation, each incarcerated individual reliant on the automated comforts provided by “the machine”.

Accessing on demand the musical content of this year’s virtual Edinburgh International Festival from the seclusion of my own home has been just as alien, but equally uplifting in witnessing the EIF’s specially-commissioned YouTube screenings, an act of resilience that is featuring classical music performances specially created for this year’s abnormal circumstances.

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As of “zero hour” – 9:30pm last Saturday – the first EIF onscreen package, My Light Shines On, went live. Included in it were separately filmed performances by three of the national companies – Scottish Opera, the Royal Scottish National Orchestra and Scottish Chamber Orchestra – to which might be added a morale-boosting fun project by the Edinburgh Festival Chorus. (Where, by the way, was the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra in all this?)

Full reviews have already been published – see www.scotsman.com/arts-and-culture/edinburgh-festivals – of Scottish Opera’s visceral film treatment of Gian Carlo Menotti’s short comic opera The Telephone (****), and of the Edinburgh Festival Chorus’ Zoom-style construct of two movements (the wintry “O Fortuna” and spring-inspired “Ecce Gratum”) from Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana (****).

The former is a touch of genius, the up-close intimacy of Daisy Evans’ film direction in perfect sync with the satirical warmth of Menotti’s operatic jewel. But while such an intrinsic piece of theatre – written originally for live American television performance in the 1950s – is a gift for film adaptation, could the same be said for the orchestral offerings? I can’t say I feel entirely comfortable staring into a cavernous Usher Hall stage, players scattered to the four winds, the isolated wind and brass equipped with what look like spittle buckets, and close-ups that exaggerated the Hall’s fraying decor. There is a sadness in that.

As there is in watching a microcosmic RSNO (****), reduced to around a third of its normal size, giving us Mahler’s gigantic Symphony No7 in a skilfully conceived, if inevitably skeletal, chamber adaptation by Klaus Simon.But give music director Thomas Søndergård his due. In his EIF debut, and in conditions less than ideal, he galvanises a performance which, by its own definition, makes blistering fire out of forensic distillation. A few rocky moments from the strings in the opening movement soon give way to the succession of emotive peaks that map the symphony’s inexorable course to its pronounced end. Scorching solo playing, though, especially from lone trumpeter Chris Hart.

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In the accompanying Mahler’s Rückert-Lieder, the immeasurable tonal range of Scots mezzo soprano Karin Cargill is an enthralling tour-de-force. There is both earthly substance and ethereal exaltation in a performance so genuinely personable and engaging you could easily believe she is singing to an audience of 2,000 rather than an empty hall.

Pianist Paul Lewis was supposed to be playing all five Beethoven piano concertos this Festival, so it made sense to have him perform at least one with the SCO (****). They chose the rather Haydnesque Piano Concerto No 2, which Lewis himself directs from the piano.

From the solo perspective, this is lustrous and exhilarating. Lewis’ finger work is needle-sharp, executed with effortless precision and attention to detail, softened by subtly nuanced phrasing and a willingness to surprise.He isn’t a natural conductor, as the opening of the slow movement reveals, where untypical blandness cools the orchestral opening. But otherwise, with Lewis in full flight and offering gestural glances or an indicative nod of the head, the SCO does what it does best, listening and responding with collegiate intuition.

Yes, there are moments where the increased physical distancing between players translates into mild constraint, and the upper notes on the piano sound imperfectly tuned in the slow movement, but there is unmissable joy in this stylish Beethoven performance.

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On a more intimate level, violist Lawrence Power (*****) has recorded the world premiere of Esa-Pekka Salonen’s “objets trouvés” – one of ten solo Lockdown Commissions requested from different composers, each of which he is performing at symbolic venues around the UK. He premieres this one on the central floor space of the Queen’s Hall, and it is both breathtaking and thought-provoking.A distant pre-recorded drone emerges like a blank canvas, over which a live viola rhapsody evolves, at times with impetuous brushstrokes, at times muted and serene, but always its mercurial spontaneity contained within the constancy of Salonen’s organic, often folkish musical process. Power’s gutsy tone digs deep into the expressive rhetoric, his animated physical presence as critical to the delivery as the notes on the page.

The SCO’s principal double bassist, Nikita Naumov (****), is every bit as absorbing in his solo performance of Thin Air by the Greek-Dutch composer Calliope Tsoupaki. The piece has a certain generic quality, not surprisingly, as it is the “baton” of a Europe-wide Festivals for Compassion initiative that has been passed from one festival to the next, in each case performed on a different solo instrument. Naumov makes a persuasive case for the double bass, embracing the natural heat of Tsoupaki’s lyrical narrative and expressing it with both aural and visual sincerity. Like all these films, the production quality is exceptional. You might just as well be there.

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