To describe Handel’s oratorio Saul as “an opera in all but name” is also to acknowledge the risk that it is neither one nor the other, and that was true of this concert performance at the Edinburgh Festival. Like the Philharmonia’s Fidelio in the opening week, it might have been enhanced by the involvement of an overseeing directorial eye, placing and moving the musicians.
It is a small thing, but particularly annoying was the seating of the natural trombones – instruments with which the composer was breaking new ground – almost invisibly behind the handsome, and very tall, chamber organ that had been brought on to the platform for the occasion (the hall’s own fine built-in instrument being anachronistically too powerful for the job).
The orchestra here was period band The English Concert, founded by Trevor Pinnock, currently directed by Harry Bicket and conducted here by Dunedin Consort’s John Butt, replacing Bernard Labadie. Scotland is indeed fortunate to have on hand someone not only able to jump in and direct three hours of rare Handel, but guaranteed to do so in a style that finds the natural propulsion of the score and is supremely sensitive to the needs of the singers.
And what a cast of principals we heard! Countertenor Iestyn Davies is as capable of filling the Usher Hall with swelling sustained notes and filigree ornamentation as he has been of holding a Queen’s Hall audience in the palm of his hand. His David was wonderfully matched at the start by Sophie Bevan’s Merab – the finest acting performance from among these singers and in glorious voice. Canadian tenor Andrew Haji and American soprano Liv Redpath were excellent, if slightly less animated, as Jonathan and Michal, and James Gilchrist the perfect choice to double in the ecclesiastical and pagan roles of the High Priest and the Witch of Endor.
The same casting wisdom applies to bass Neal Davies in the title role, who caught exactly the right tone for the vacillating King, allowing us to find a little sympathy for a difficult character.
In what was the only choreographed move of the night, the 26 singers of the English Concert stood up by section before the opening choruses (the “Hallelujah” is near the start of this one), which immediately made apparent how few of them were producing such a rich sound. The choir’s precision dispatch of the complex “Oh fatal consequence of rage” at the end of Act 2 was particularly memorable. Step-outs in the smaller roles were uniformly excellent, and bass William Thomas – credited only in the supertitles at the start – made a huge impression in his Act 3 cameo as the Apparition of Samuel.
As well as those trombones, the period instrument band was full of fascinating colours – this was a work on which Handel really indulged himself. Silas Wollston’s chamber organ had an early showpiece and Masumi Yamamoto supplied the bells of the carillon in Act 1 as well as her harpsichord continuo, while Oliver Wass followed a Iestyn Davies aria with a lovely harp solo played from memory. Among the combinations of instruments Handel deploys, the trio of cello, harp and archlute for Bevan’s “Author of peace” was especially lovely.
If the Act 3 Death March, once a mainstay of state funerals, is best known of the music, the scene that precedes it is Saul at its most operatic, as the King turns his back on his faith to consult the witch. We are in similar territory to Macbeth here – librettist Charles Jennens was a Shakespearean as well as a Bible scholar – and surely paving the way for the confrontation between Don Giovanni and the Commendatore. Those parallels appeared, and sounded, to be in the mind of Neal Davies’s impressive Saul.
Max Bruch would surely be dismayed to know how much he is still identified with the first of his three violin concertos (which he sold to a publisher for a pittance), his later Scottish Fantasy its only real rival in the modern repertoire.
Nicola Benedetti plays both, of course, and few regular concertgoers in Scotland will never have heard her perform the concerto during her starry early career. It is a box office favourite, and best known for the Hungarian dance music of the Finale, written for the work’s virtuoso dedicatee Joseph Joachim, who had no small hand in the shaping of the piece.
If you were fortunate enough to be hearing it for the first time at the start of the final week of the 75th Edinburgh International Festival, however, you will have heard another side to the concerto – and one that might have gratified its long-dead composer.
Benedetti, the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and its Principal Conductor Maxim Emelyanychev put the focus firmly on the central Adagio movement, treating the faster music around it almost as supporting furniture. It was a glorious account of a beautifully structured part of the work that takes its themes through many changes of key, falling figures in the winds playing against climbing ones in the solo line, and lush interplay that owes much to Mendelssohn and to Schubert.
With little more pause before the Finale than there is between the first and second movements, Emelyanychev and Benedetti made a wonderful arc of the whole piece, the violinist allowing neither her cadenza at the end of the Vorspiel nor her first bar of the Allegro energico to disturb the flow.
Of course, the faster showier music was still there, and few play it with more panache than Benedetti, but it was far from the whole story here.
For an encore, Emelyanychev was at the piano for another familiar favourite recorded early on by Benedetti – the Meditation from Thais by Massenet.
After that, Tchaikovsky’s ballet music for The Sleeping Beauty could almost seem an exotic choice, but Emelyanychev chose to play a sequence of music that eloquently told the tale that everyone knows, even if some of the score is much more familiar than other parts.
Guest principal clarinet Yann Ghiro, first trumpet Shaun Harrold, principal cello Philip Higham and harpist Eleanor Hudson all made telling solo contributions, but it was the precision tempi of the ensemble – playing as if in a pit for a performance – that impressed most. The music at the end of Act I built to a sumptuous peak from which the marvel was being able to continue, although the Entr’acte Symphonique of Act 2 matched it.
For the second of its Edinburgh Festival appearances this year, the Czech Philharmonic, under its St Petersburg-born music director Semyon Bychkov, turned its attention to a single, monumental symphonic statement, the gnarled psychological discourse that is Mahler’s Seventh Symphony.
This is the orchestra that once delivered the original premiere in 1908 under Gustav Mahler’s baton. He did so despite concern over its “less than first rate” capabilities. No such worries for Bychkov, whose tight-knit control over the modern Czech Phil on Sunday presented the 80-minute symphony in colourful, manic and ultimately propulsive light.
His eye was firmly set on the endpoint, a triumphant finale still bearing the savage twists that pervaded and unhinged (for the right reasons) the previous four movements, yet through which sufficient dazzling positivity emerged to shake off Mahler’s palpable doubts and demons. This was a cathartic moment, heroic Wagner-like grandiosity mixed with equal measures of Straussian opulence and intimacy, yet the sniper fire of acid modernism constantly threatening to sour that optimism. Here, the orchestra reached blazing heights, the final moments gloriously exuberant and exhaustive.
If the performance lacked anything to that point, it was the potential for greater derring-do. Any risk seemed to be all Mahler’s, orchestral colourings that verge on extreme surrealism, a harmonic battle field that pits minor and major as almost irreconcilable warring factors. Yet, while Bychkov chose to contain much of the wilder moments, his justification came in the controlled, explosive impact of the finale.
Nor did he underplay the most distinguishing features of this work: the dark, disturbing freneticism underpinning the opening movement, the spellbinding virtuosity of the first Nachtmusik (remember the 1980s’ Castrol GTX advert?), the sardonic eccentricity of the central Scherzo, that moment of limpid reverie, the second Nachtmusik, characterised by the mandolin and guitar.
This was never a Mahler 7 that centred its intentions on simply raising the roof. Instead, it was a performance of real substance, relevance, potency and intelligence, offering one of many viewpoints this ambiguous symphony is capable of inspiring.
If every Festival needs to reinvent the wheel to justify the event’s continuing existence – and the 75th one has had to embrace some distinctive post-pandemic thinking in particular – the inclusion of the comfortingly familiar is also an important ingredient of its success, especially at the box office.
Almost a decade ago, Austrian baritone Florian Boesch and pianist Malcolm Martineau had a Spring residency in Glasgow performing the three song cycles of Schubert, and in 2016 they performed Die schone Mullerin as part of the EIF’s Queen’s Hall series. Winterreise – the most harrowing of the three – has a performance history at the Festival dating back to 1952, when Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau sang it with Gerald Moore in the Freemason’s Hall.
This year we have already heard three of the 24 songs as part of Anne Sofie von Otter’s recital, but Boesch and Martineau are the current gold standard for the cycle. The baritone seems to become the desolate protagonist in his anguished rendering of these songs, taking his listeners on what is – for once accurately deploying a very tired modern cliché – a captivating journey. Martineau is with him every step of the way, pausing or hurrying on as required, sensitive to the most subtle shifts of tone.
Less than half way though, with the last lines of Irrlicht (Will-o’-the wisp) – “Every river will reach the sea; Every sorrow, too, will reach its grave.” – Boesch almost appeared too exhausted to go on. The next song is, of course, Rest.
His voice is a huge instrument, but that power was only occasionally hinted at; instead it was the pianissimo enunciation of the most pained expressions of loss in Wilhelm Muller’s poetry that lingers longest in the mind.
The Czech Philharmonic also has a long and distinguished performance history at the Edinburgh International Festival, as has already been explored in an interview feature on VoxCarnyx. The music they brought this year, fulfilling a booking intended for the 2020 Festival, is also of a piece with concerts in previous years, and the first of them was entirely of Czech music.
Saturday’s began in appropriately celebratory style with Dvorak’s Carnival Overture, as fine a statement of the relationship between Chief Conductor Semyon Bychkov and the musicians as you might wish – huge forces making an immediate impact with precision playing.
The programme ended with Janacek’s Glagolitic Mass, featuring Aidan Oliver’s Edinburgh Festival Chorus, three Czechs and one Russian as soloists and some terrific organ-playing. The organist, Daniela Valtova Kosinova, soprano Evelina Dobraceva and tenor Ales Briscein understandably won the biggest cheers at the end, alongside the choir and the orchestra’s brass. Bychkov shaped a work that is often seen as eccentric with great care, and the impact of both the Credo and the Sanctus was huge.
The conductor’s wife Marielle Labeque and her sister Katia were the soloists on Martinu’s Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra, and they are also no strangers to the Festival. There was vast energy in their playing in the outer movements, but also great tenderness in the Adagio in partnership with the orchestra’s winds. An encore of the fourth movement of Philip Glass’s Concerto for Two Pianos, which they premiered with the LA Phil and Dudamel, was a terrific bonus.
All Festival-goers will be hoping that the next EIF director, Nicola Benedetti, renews the invitations to the Czech Phil, Bychkov and Florian Boesch and Martineau. Is it wrong to hope that the orchestra might be invited to play Prokofiev and the baritone asked to sing Gershwin and Kurt Weill?
Storytelling in music can make the most fascinating of concerts, even beyond operas and orchestral works with a compositional narrative. Wednesday provided two very different, bold and rewarding ways to go about that.
South African soprano Golda Schulz and her regular pianist, American Jonathan Ware, commissioned her New York-domiciled countrywoman Kathleen Tagg and poet and librettist Lila Palmer to write This Be Her Verse, a three-song cycle about contemporary female experience. That’s the title they have also used for an Alpha Classics album and a recital programme that culminates in the new work but begins in the 19th century with the songs of Clara Schumann and the rediscovered Emilie Mayer.
The story it tells is not merely of women composers, celebrated and forgotten, but of female experience, even if all but one of the older songs set words written by men. When that includes a lovely melodic devotional quartet of French songs by Nadia Boulanger as well W B Yeats’ Down by the Salley Gardens, and Blake’s The Tiger alongside his Cradle Song, all in Rebecca Clarke’s settings, there is some interesting thinking going on – and it is no coincidence that those last three were some of Schulz’s most theatrical performances.
She has a very rich-toned voice, relaxed and comfortable across a wide range – and a very flexible range of expression to suit the tone of each song. The construction of the recital was masterly, returning to Schumann and Mayer after John Masefield’s The Seal Man to create a trilogy of fairytale fantasy across language and culture that mirrored the trilogy of reflections on modern reality that closed the programme. They are very good indeed, Tagg finding a multitude of ways of responding to Palmer’s witty and personal words. Schulz guided her (embarrassingly small) audience through it with great charm, Ware was more than equal to the span of approaches required as her foil, and an Amy Beach encore was appropriately joyous.
A fortnight or so beyond his 81st birthday, Catalan early music specialist Jordi Savall is still finding ways to push the envelope in a field that is a great deal more crowded that it was when he began his international musical journey in the 1970s.
Perhaps not since the Eurovision Song Contest in 1972 has the Usher Hall hosted such a global musical trek in a single evening. Ibn Battuta: The Traveller of Time was the story of the eponymous 14th century Arab writer, who explored the known world from his home in Morocco across Africa, Europe and the Middle East as far as India and China before returning home and writing up his adventures, and his impressions of the cultures he encountered from a Muslim perspective.
Using excerpts from his writings alongside a narrative of his life (written by Manuel Forcano), Savall and the current edition of his group Hesperion XXI was augmented by specialist singers and players to perform the music he may have encountered in the places he visited at that time.
Of course it was diverse, but is was also notable how much linked the music of one place with the next, and the sound of 700 years ago with our own time. Savall included his own barrio in some 13th century Spanish music, but often had little to do. There was a virtuosic raga by Prabhu Edouard on tablas and Daud Sadozai on sarod, some particularly fine singing from Syria’s Waed Bouhassoun, and Morocco’s Driss El Maloumi and Madagascar’s Rajery combined to lay down an irresistible groove on oud and valiha (the island’s national instrument, a tube zither). When the whole ensemble performed together the effect was as exotic as you may imagine.
The narrator was Assaad Bouab, who last played the Festival in 2011 as part of Tim Supple’s One Thousand and One Nights, will be familiar to many as Hicham Janowski in the French TV comedy Call My Agent! and has more recently been seen in something called Peaky Blinders on British television. He could, to be frank, have been a little more dynamic in his delivery of the exciting adventures of Ibn Battuta.
If you haven’t heard the revelatory recordings of Stravinsky’s trio of famous Ballet Russes scores issued some years ago by the exceptional Le Siécles orchestra, performed on the same type of early 20th century French instruments these groundbreaking Parisian creations were first heard on, they are readily available. If you missed the real thing – a simply sensational Festival performance on Tuesday of The Rite of Spring under the orchestra’s founder and conductor François-Xavier Roth – you missed an absolute treat.
It was, without exaggeration, a knock-out. Where successive exponents have found virtue enough in The Rite’s unnerving, sidestepping rhythmic propulsion, the mystical primitivism of its Russian folksong derivations, or the cataclysmic violence of its harmonic friction, Roth not only brought these together in an electrifying display of utter completeness, but did so with intense, penetrating forensic insight.
The unrefined pungency of the period instruments, and the matching expertise of the players, added a further blood-curdling distinctiveness to the eviscerating frenzy of the performance, strengthened by Roth’s insistence on pinpoint precision and clarity of line. Every parameter had unquestioning purpose, the earth-shattering extremes of dynamic, even the prolonged dramatic silences during which the entire Usher Hall seemed to draw a collective breath. The final sign-off, like a killer blow, sent this audience into instant delirium.
It was an inspired piece of programming to precede this particular Stravinsky with Lili Boulanger’s Faust et Hélène, written the same year as the infamous succès de scandale of The Rite of Spring. It was also a reminder that the early death of Lili (younger sister of the influential Nadia, also a composer) in 1918 robbed French 20th century music of a hugely promising voice.
For Boulanger’s cantata, written at only 20 as a successful bid to become the first female winner of the much-coveted Prix de Rome, is a cauldron of rich and fertile musical ideas thrown around with seething impatience but ultimate theatrical assurance. It features three characters – Faust (the resplendent and impassioned tenor Julien Behr), Hélène (the softer, mellow-voiced Véronique Gens), and Mephistopheles (baritone Jean-Sébastien Bou) – and a musical language in the process of freeing itself from dominant influences, not least Wagner and Debussy.
Roth acknowledged its impetuousness in a busy, fiery, directional performance. But inevitably this occasion will long be remembered for A Rite of Spring that completely blew us away.
I wonder what the BBC Radio 3 audience made of the opening of the Dunedin Consort’s Queen’s Hall concert on Tuesday? The loose-limbed Toccata in D minor by Giovanni Girolamo Kapsberger may not have immediately registered with listeners only, but for those of us there, actually watching Elizabeth Kenny spin the arpeggiations from her theorbo, the overall experience was one of eloquence and restful appreciation.
Which sums up the overriding essence of this Dunedin Consort programme, devised by the starring tenor Nicholas Mulroy. It centred on that pivotal 17th century period in European music when the Renaissance gave way to the early Baroque, offering a sequence of representational songs punctuated by instrumental respite.
Even with relatively supercharged moments from Monteverdi – the invigorating ritornelli that elicited the sweet virtuoso duelling between voice and violins in Più Lieto Il Guardo – or in the exuberant instrumental Trio Sonata in C by Buxtehude, there was a stylish refinement that tempered the spirit of the delivery. It was late morning; no need to get too excited.
And it was all about good taste. Mulroy, who is now Dunedin’s associate director, explored shifting emotions with tempered insight. Where Monteverdi’s Salve Regina and Schütz’s O Misericordissime Jesu were filled with deep and thoughtful reverence, the former’s Et E Pur Dunque Vero was a radiant contrast to the gorgeous exoticism of his Nigra Sum.
The group’s actual director, John Butt, kept a generous low profile on continuo, butting in, as it were, with a frisky solo harpsichord Capriccio by Frescobaldi. But the most dramatised music was left till last, Barbara Strozzi’s Lagrime Mie constituting a miniaturised cantata whose narrative course and deep sentiments found Mulroy in his fullest flow. It ended like a bookend to Kenny’s opening solo: soft, ruminative, sublime. Was I the only one tempted to tip-toe out?
Conductor Semyon Bychkov and members of the Czech Philharmonic talked to Keith Bruce ahead of their Edinburgh Festival concerts
Between the Philharmonia at its start and the Philadelphia when it ends, the 75th Edinburgh International Festival has another orchestral residency when the Czech Philharmonic plays two concerts under the baton of its Chief conductor and Music Director Semyon Bychkov.
The relationship between the Czech orchestra and the Festival is an important one, with regular visits over the years under many of the great conductors with whom it has been associated. Almost always the concerts have included Czech repertoire by Smetana, Janacek and Dvorak, often alongside the music of Gustav Mahler.
In 1969 the recently-appointed Vaclav Neumann was on the podium, returning in 1983 in partnership with Jiri Belohlavek for a concert featuring the piano duo of Katia and Marielle Labeque. Belohlavek conducted two of the three concerts in 1991, but Janacek’s epic Glagolitic Mass was under the baton of Sir Charles Mackerras. That same team returned at the end of the 1998 festival and in 2000 played two Usher Hall concerts and in the pit at the Playhouse for Jiri Kylian’s Nederlands Dans Theater.
The story actually goes back to the years of the Festival’s founding, when the Czech Phil’s conductor Rafael Kubelik, who had maintained a defiant attitude to the Nazis during the Second World War, decided he could not live under another tyrannical regime following the Communist coup and used the opportunity of conducting a Glyndebourne production of Mozart’s Don Giovanni at the King’s Theatre in 1948 to defect.
The orchestra will this year play the music of their homeland on Saturday, with the Labeque sisters once again the soloists in a programme that also includes the Glagolitic Mass with the Edinburgh Festival Chorus. On Sunday we will hear Mahler’s Symphony No 7, a work the orchestra premiered in Prague in 1908, under the baton of the composer. Conducting both concerts this weekend is their Music Director since 2018, Semyon Bychkov, who is married to Marielle Labeque and a Russian who swiftly and eloquently condemned the invasion of Ukraine at a time when others were equivocal.
In common with many public buildings in Prague, the Czech Phil’s concert hall, the Rudolfinum, displays the colours of the Ukraine flag in solidarity with the people there. This is no distant conflict for the people of the Czech Republic, and the orchestra’s Chief Conductor was an important voice at the start of the war, issuing a statement headlined “Silence in the face of evil becomes its accomplice”.
In April of this year, on the morning after a filled Rudolfinum heard a concert of a contemporary symphony by English composer Julian Anderson, Prague Panoramas, a Mozart Piano Concerto played by Vikingur Olafsson and Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, Bychkov was happy to talk about both the current situation, his relationship with the land of his birth, and the recent history of an orchestra with which he clearly enjoys a fond relationship.
Resident in France, he was settled into a late freelance career and not minded to seek a contractual post with any orchestra when he was approached by the musicians, following the death of Belohlavek. “I couldn’t refuse 124 orphans,” he says, smiling.
“The pandemic took away many of our plans, including an invitation to Edinburgh in 2020, and also a visit to Moscow to perform there. That was before this tragedy started and now there is no discussion of that, either possible or desired.”
Concerts in the Russian capital would have been a major event for the orchestra and for its Chief Conductor, who was a prize-winning young talent in St Petersburg before leaving for a career in the West.
“I left because I wanted to be free to live the way I wanted to live, free to think the way I want, free to express myself the way I want, and free to make music that is important to me, or not to make it because it is not important to me,” he says, before acknowledging another side to his decision.
“Antisemitism exists everywhere, the difference there was that it was institutionalised within the state. I saw my father suffer from that, before I was given opportunities that were amazing and without precedent. But 50 years later my answer, and my decision, hasn’t changed.”
“A country that refuses to recognise the dark pages of its history and accept the necessity to atone for them will never be able to come out of enslavement to those dark pages. Russia lost 27 million people during World War Two, but more in the gulags of Lenin and Stalin – yet people there are nostalgic for Stalin.”
Bychkov conducted the BBC Symphony Orchestra at the 2019 Festival, in a concert that included Mahler 4, and he was on his first big European tour post-pandemic with the Czech orchestra when the Ukrainian invasion happened. It changed the dynamic of the dates, he says, with London’s Barbican and concerts in Berlin and Vienna quickly selling out.
There can be little argument that it is in the company of the orchestras of those cities that the Prague orchestra belongs. Some of the musicians in the Czech Philharmonic are long-served enough to have played under Neumann and under Mackerras in Edinburgh.
Oboist Ivan Sequardt says: “Touring is an essential part of our work. We love the Rudolfinum, but there are halls that are better suited for bigger pieces: Leipzig Gewandhaus, Birmingham Symphony Hall and the halls in Yokohama and Tokyo in Japan. Our home venue has limited space and some compositions need to be played elsewhere.”
Just the same, Sequardt is not entirely delighted to be taking Mahler 7 to the Festival. “Agencies want it because it was premiered here in Prague, which is a shame. It is a great piece up to the last movement, which is too long and full of unnatural and pointless repetitions. Maestro Neumann was right to cross out some of those as a favour to the audience. I like Symphonies 5, 4, and 1 much better.”
The orchestra is getting to know them all again, because it is in the midst of recording the whole cycle for Pentatone, following the success of an acclaimed 7-disc set of the music of Tchaikovsky. Symphony No 4 was released in April and 1, 2, 5 and 9 are already “in the can”.
For Bychkov, Mahler was an obvious choice.
“Mahler is viewed as an Austrian composer because his later years were spent in Vienna, although he was born in this country and his DNA is the DNA of the Czech Phil. During the pandemic, Simon Rattle came to work with the orchestra and described it as ‘the perfect Mahler orchestra’”, he says with pride.
“When I first arrived, the agreement we made was for me to spend 16 weeks of the year with the orchestra, but it has never been less than 20. I am here not because I must but because I want to. Music is existential for the Czech people, as we see in the audience as well as the orchestra.”
“We really appreciate collaboration, and conductors who treat us a partners,” says Sequardt. His colleague Jaroslav Pondelicek from the viola section adds that the orchestra is more flexible than it used to be in its accommodation of the desires of conductors.
“The Czech Phil sound is very tender and transparent,” says Pondelicek, “and Bychkov has added more passion and energy, especially to the strings.”
In the recording studio, he says, the conductor always wants long takes of whole movements but will not hesitate to ask for them again if he is not happy.
“His preparation is fantastic, with great detail. He wants the best result possible and it is great value for us that he will not be satisfied if we play less than our best.”
With a Japanese flautist and a Spanish double bass player, there is evidence of international recruitment within the ranks of the Czech Phil, but it is much less than we are familiar with in the UK.
The players see that as a strength, and so does the conductor.
“All but two are Czech, so there is a continuity in the way the musicians think about phrasing. We want to preserve that because it makes the orchestra unique. And the orchestra is on the young side but very mixed age-wise, which is lucky because it cannot be arranged – it is an natural process of regeneration,” says Bychkov.
70 years old this year, Bychkov has conducted many of the world’s finest orchestras, across North America and Europe and speaks from vast experience.
“If an orchestra is not loved there is nothing you can do about it,” he says. “But this orchestra is loved, first of all by its home audience – and we feel it every time we come onstage by the way they greet us and how they listen – and it is loved elsewhere as well, and that helps. Not everyone has this privilege.”
Czech Philharmonic and Semyon Bychkov are at the Usher Hall, Edinburgh, on August 20 and 21 as part of this year’s Edinburgh International Festival. eif.co.uk
Richard Strauss offhandedly referred to Salome as “a scherzo with a fatal conclusion”, but then he was prone to such deviant moments of glib, self-effacing understatement. As this raw, incisive concert performance by the Bergen Philharmonic under chief conductor Edward Gardner and heady cast, spearheaded by Swedish soprano Malin Byström in the title role, made abundantly clear, Salome remains one of the game-changing operas of the 20th century opera.
With a libretto fashioned around Oscar Wilde’s eponymous play (via Hedwig Lachmann’s German translation), Strauss didn’t hold back in adapting such a gruesomely salaciously plot – scandalised mainly by Salome’s hideous demand to receive and kiss the severed head of Jochanaan – into a thoroughly grotesque, uncompromising and radical piece of music theatre. This un-staged presentation made the strongest of cases for the penetrating emotional clout of the music alone.
Gardner, who relinquishes his Bergen post in 2024 to become artistic director of the Norwegian Opera and Ballet, had the full measure of it. His orchestra’s unceasing role was monumental, displaying passion and precision at every nail-biting turn, the sheer weight and volume at times overwhelming, but never to the detriment of detailed instrumental subtleties that glistened with illuminating intent.
It’s all about Salome, of course, and what a seething performance from Byström, who is set to sing the role next month in a revival of David McVicar’s staged production at Covent Garden. You could sense in her Edinburgh performance a hint of mental preparation for that, every eye movement and body gesture testing the water.
And who’d have thought the Dance of the Seven Veils could have proved so seductive without the actual dance? Byström simply tossed a silken scarlet scarf at Herod’s feet before leaving the stage to allow Strauss’ provocative musical striptease to speak for itself. But the focus was ever on the voice, and a performance of thrilling stature, bestial venom and captivating sexuality.
There was barely a weak link in this entire cast, its core characters evenly distinguished. Gerhard Siegel imbued Herod with a fitting, almost maniacal, sleaziness, countered potently by the superior smugness of Katarina Dalayman’s Herodias and the piety and passion in Johan Reuter’s soaring performance as the fated Jochanaan.
Above all, this was a performance engineered by Gardner that maintained its grip from start to finish, the tension inexorable, the expressive possibilities fully explored. It was Bergen’s second operatic triumph at an Edinburgh Festival. Here’s hoping there’s a third.
It may say something or nothing about wider changes in society, but it is a paradox that music written by Brahms for the intimacy of the domestic salon now needs the well-funded platform of an international festival to be heard.
For most of us, the EIF’s morning Queen’s Hall concert series is as close as we can be to the atmosphere the composer and Clara Schumann would create for the first performances of his two sets of Liebeslieder-Walzer.
At the piano here were two of Scotland’s finest players, Malcolm Martineau and Steven Osborne, their presence the main attraction for a pretty full house. The four singers were from south of the border and, in the case of soprano Madison Nonoa, New Zealand.
For reasons that were unclear, we heard the later “Neue” Liebeslieder-Walzer first, apart from the closing Goethe setting, saved for an encore. That meant the soprano had the prominent solo voice for the first half of the concert – and a very fine one it is too. Her other engagements this season include Handel’s Acis and Galatea and Maria in West Side Story and that gives a good indication of the tone and precision she brought to Brahms. She also combined beautifully in duet with alto Jess Dandy, whose rich instrument is known and loved by Scots audiences and who was in excellent voice here.
Tenor Magnus Walker was to the fore in the earlier songs (performed second), but we had already heard him to advantage in the fickle Ich kose suss mit der und der. Bass William Thomas had an early solo moment with Ich swarzen Augen, but was more often in a supporting role. It was as an ensemble, for which they had presumably had little rehearsal, that the young singers really impressed, their balance consistent even with some brisk tempi set by their accompanists.
On either side of the interval Osborne and Martineau added two classics for four hands, some of the best known piano music in the canon. Ravel’s fairytale settings, Ma Mere l’Oye, went on to orchestrated life, but are exquisitely colourful and technically precise in their original form. The pianists in the hall are perhaps more likely to keep a lasting memory of Schubert’s Fantasie in F Minor, surely the most famous work for four hands and given an utterly spell-binding reading. The way the work unfolded, with its recurring anguished melody and climactic fugue, was absolutely masterly.
The home team of musicians were out in force at the Usher Hall later, with a large edition of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra that included a sprinkling of players from the RSNO as well as well-known freelances in prominent roles.
Continuing a relationship with EIF after last year’s A Grand Night for Singing, Wayne Marshall was on the podium and, initially, at the keyboard for a programme of American music that began with Rhapsody in Blue and ended with the “Symphonic Picture” arrangement of Porgy and Bess by Robert Russell Bennett. I don’t much like the latter, and Marshall’s approach to Rhapsody was idiosyncratic – good and pacey but with long, meandering cadenzas by himself.
A well-filled auditorium loved it though, and especially enjoyed his encore variations on I Got Rhythm on the Usher Hall organ. In between were early works by Leonard Bernstein and Aaron Copland: Fancy Free and El Salon Mexico set both composers on their paths to popular success in the USA and are important to hear, but I missed the crisp beat and dynamic control a conductor like John Wilson would have brought to the task.
The Chineke! Orchestra has made a profound and lasting impression on the classical music world, with its commitment to ethnic diversity among its players and the composers it performs. It’s not a strangulating, exclusive deal – look at the wide multi-cultural spread among its ranks – but it’s a prominent one. Classical music, and society, are all the better for it.
We experienced that in miniature on Thursday, when the Chineke! Chamber Players took to the Queen’s Hall stage for a programme that delved into music by composers much of the audience are unlikely to have heard of – Black Americans William Grant Still (1895-1978) and 52-year-old Valerie Coleman, and contemporary native Australian artists Deborah Cheetham and William Barton – as well as Mendelssohn, his posthumously-published Piano Sextet Op110.
That’s all very well, but at the end of the day if a piece of music is merely fair-to-middling it’s not going to set the heather on fire, and the first half of this concert certainly left this listener unconvinced we’d heard anything particularly exceptional. Many of the performances, a range of ensemble mixes culminating in Barton’s frontline appearance on didgeridoo, struggled to make proverbial silk purses.
Still’s Folk Suite No 1 undoubtedly bears a popular charm, its references to African folk song, Black spiritual and high-spirited Jewish songs very much a starter for ten, with a catchy opening movement simplistically reminiscent of Arthur Jacob’s Jamaican Rumba. Coleman, a more expansive compositional voice in her early 50s, aims to interpret life in the American South through the medium of the classical scherzo, which Red Clay and Mississippi Delta did in a performance that played to its bluesy tenor, got us finger-clicking (though with no indication of when to stop) and a virtuosity that took time to emotionally engage and ultimately fly.
For the remaining Australian portion of the opening half, the mood turned distinctively pictorial, first in the filmic soundscaping that is Cheetham’s Ngarrgooroon – Woven Song. Cheetham – one of the country’s Stolen Generation which saw Aboriginal children forcibly removed for their biological families to live with non-Aboriginals – is a multi-disciplined performer and activist whose compositions encompass her beliefs in “country and connection”. While this one oozes atmosphere and mysticism, it struggles to go places musically.
The same might be said for Barton’s The Rising of Mother Country, which started off so promisingly with the composer entering from the rear and processing through the audience soulfully incanting. Once seated within the ensemble, didgeridoos at the ready (he had two, one exquisitely ornate, the other looking as if it had been through the wars and held together with gaffer tape), his role seemed disappointingly incidental. Was it that the didgeridoo is intrinsically subtler than I thought, or was the amplification inefficient? Either way, what looked like an intensity of expression was hard to actually perceive above the fullness of the surrounding ensemble.
Despite that, the overall effect was at times mesmerising, evocatively nostalgic, if ultimately lacking in shape and directional definition. Barton continued with a further number, a song inspired by his early love of rock (I think he referenced Australian rock band AC/DC) in which he simultaneously sang, played guitar and didgeridoo. He was a natural star in this.
Safe to say that the second half, limited to one substantial work, inspired the now piano and string ensemble to a more palpable and profound belief in what they were playing. This was the Mendelssohn’s Sextet, a work that makes no apologies for its technical demands on the pianist from start to finish, but which explores exhaustive possibilities among the entirety of this rich instrumental grouping.
As a whole, Chineke! delivered an invigorating performance, with gritty, witty interplay and capturing the high drama in music that betrays the composer’s odd flamboyant nod to Weber. It almost hit the skids in the final moments, but ultimately this Mendelssohn gem was the much-needed panacea to a strangely undistinguished first half. True quality wins out.
Image: Chineke! Chamber Players & Wiliam Barton by Ryan Buchanan
Where do you want opera to take you? Lisbon, Paris, Buenos Aires, Suriname and Venice? Check. On a philosophical journey, along the catwalk and to fleshpots and sex dungeons? Check. Into war zones, across viciously-patrolled borders and on an inflatable boat to a new life as a refugee? Check. From one of the most familiar overtures in 20th century music through less well-known terrain that is filled with echoes of the scores to stories old and new that you already know? Check.
Scottish Opera’s new production, programmed with admirable cheek at the peak of the Edinburgh Festival and Fringe, has an extravagant address of its own: Live at No 40, New Rotterdam Wharf, on the canal side of the company’s technical centre in Edington, beyond where it staged La boheme and Falstaff during lockdown. What the company has purpose built in a vast rigid tent, filled with platforms, containers, curtain-sided trailer and trucks that become the stages, is an event – and one that everyone who loves opera, musical theatre or spectacle should rush to see. It is also an ideal introduction to any of those to the uninitiated.
The company has a significant history with Leonard Bernstein’s long-in-development adaptation of Voltaire. At the end of the 1980s, then music director John Mauceri undertook a major revision of the work by his mentor, and Lenny himself became involved in the latter stages of a revival that resulted in the “Scottish Opera version”, which is, of course, the basis of the new production.
I’d wager, however, that neither Mauceri nor Bernstein could have envisaged what director Jack Furness, conductor Stuart Stratford and their respective teams have created for this 21st century staging. Utterly true to both Voltaire and Bernstein – and using the long list of wordsmiths who have contributed to it, Lillian Hellman, Stephen Sondheim and John Wells among them – this is a Candide that is a bold satirical swipe at the ills of the world today: social media, pornography, perilous journeys by refugees, sleazy politicians and aggressive miliary invasions among them.
It is also a story of love winning out against the odds, and a vehicle for some of the most hilarious slapstick broad humour and slick verbal wit, while containing sumptuous music that may well find you choking back tears at times.
The number of performers involved in creating this rich spectacular is huge. Prominent on the central raised platform are Stratford and the orchestra, playing at their best, and largely confined to their station, although one clarinet does go walkabout. Everything else is constantly in motion; when Candide’s journey reaches Venice Carnival the gaming tables are all around us and the action and singing projected from all points of the compass in quite dizzying style.
But then, it all began in that way, with the chorus suddenly revealed as being amongst the paying public promenading in the arena. That ensemble is also revealed as being a multi-ethnic, many-aged collective with professional singers among them. They move brilliantly together, with many individual step-out moments, and sing with passion and precision; this choir sounds brilliant.
The principals would have to be on their mettle to match them, and this cast certainly is. Levels of experience range for Scottish Opera Emerging Artist Lea Shaw to company stalwarts Susan Bullock and Jamie MacDougall, with Ronald Samm (Dr Pangloss) previously featuring in ScotOp’s Pagliacci in Paisley, the recent production this most closely resembles.
The three young singers at the heart of the tale, Dan Shelvey as Maximilian, Paula Sides as Cunegonde, and William Morgan in the title role are all quite superb performers in spectacular voice, up for everything that Furness throws at them in his brilliant re-imagining of the work.
But that goes for everyone performing, and – on the evidence of the first night – for the audience as well.
Further performances August 13, 14,16, 18 and 20.
Picture (l to r) William Morgan (Candide), Paula Sides (Cunegonde), Lea Shaw (Paquette), and Dan Shelvey (Maximillian). Credit James Glossop.
One of Scotland’s main promoters of chamber music once told a sceptical me that singers were a harder sell than instrumentalists. My dubiety was, admittedly, based on the star names that appear in the Edinburgh Festival’s Queen’s Hall series, and the appearance of Swedish mezzo Anne Sofie von Otter certainly produced the first full house the venue has seen this year.
That audience undoubtedly went home happy to judge by the ovation she received after the Schubert encore. That was the only occasion in which all the musicians involved – pianist Christoph Berner and string quartet Quatuor Van Kuijk – performed together, but which required von Otter to recite rather than sing.
It was a somewhat odd conclusion to a brief recital that bracketed a pocket “Shubertiad” with songs by Rufus Wainwright. That combination may have made more sense with originally advertised string quartet Brooklyn Rider, who were apparently unable to travel to Edinburgh and yet are joining the singer in Kilkenny and Copenhagen over the next few days. As it was, the two trios of Wainwrights were accompanied by piano, as were von Otter’s four Schubert songs, interspersed with the four movements of the Death and the Maiden quartet, played by Quatuor Van Kuijk.
Whether the imaginative programming served the material is a matter of taste. Wainwright’s unpublished Trois Valses Anglaises are a fine addition to von Otter’s “pop” repertoire, sitting nicely alongside the Brian Wilson songs she recorded with Elvis Costello some years ago. Employing small slides in pitch, she uses a different tone for these than she employs on “classic” art songs, with some show tune intonation, specifically reminiscent of Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George here.
The three Songs for Lulu that followed the Schubert are from Wainwright’s 2010 album and without his own distinctive voice revealed older influences, Sad With What I Have kin to Sinatra Sings For Only The Lonely, and Who Are You New York? nodding to Ol’ Blue Eyes’ strutting hymn to The Big Apple.
Von Otter’s diction in German is crisper than her English, truth to tell, as her Schubert songs, Death and the Maiden and three from Winterreise, demonstrated. The hymn-like simplicity of Die Nebensonnen was the most suited to her mezzo, while Der Wegweiser and Einsamkeit cry out darker hues.
The string players sounded particularly fine on the Scherzo and Presto Finale of the Death and the Maiden quartet. Earlier leader Nicolas Van Kuijk and cellist Anthony Kondo had been over-dominant in the group’s balance.
The singer turned stage manager for some of the shepherding of her colleagues in the lunchtime recital just as home-town hero Sir Donald Runnicles adopted that role for the curtain call at the concert performance of Fidelio in the Usher Hall later in the day.
Using Sir David Pountney’s added English narration, delivered by Sir Willard White, the luxury cast of soloists included a superb Leonore from Emma Bell, who stepped in to replace Jennifer Davis. Like Gunther Groissbock’s glorious Rocco, she was entirely “off the book”, but that was not true of everyone, with Kim-Lillian Strebel, as Marzelline, turning to the score at one point and Markus Bruck reading the music throughout.
Terrifically well sung by the Philharmonia Voices chorus as well as the principals, and played by the Philharmonia Orchestra in the last appearance of its busy Festival residency, this Fidelio was musically outstanding, and rapturously received for that. Runnicles was in his element.
However, it cannot go down as a classic in the recent history of EIF operas-in-concert. Although some of the cast, notably Groissbock, seemed to be trying to guide things, it lacked some directorial shape, with Willard White poorly placed behind his narrator’s desk and the arias and ensembles delivered in a parade-ground line across the stage. Fidelio is fantastic music, but it needs a bit of help to be drama.
Five years ago Lukas Vondracek was a last minute substitute for Sir Andras Schiff in an SCO concert featuring Dvorak’s rarely-performed Piano Concerto that also had to cope with a last-minute change of conductor.
At this year’s Edinburgh Festival the Czech pianist was called upon to step in at the last moment when German percussionist Martin Grubinger tested positive for Covid. Having the Dvorak under his fingers was remarkable, but having Tan Dun’s Percussion Concerto, The Tears of Nature, in his repertoire was unlikely, so the programme was overhauled so that the first half included The Sorcerer’s Apprentice by Dukas and the First Piano Concerto of Franz Liszt.
Much like Rossini’s William Tell and The Lone Ranger, for people of a certain age the Dukas will always mean Mickey Mouse in Disney’s Fantasia, but those folk are getting on a bit now, so perhaps younger ears can enjoy the work’s narrative orchestral colour on its own terms, without the pictures.
Its last-minute inclusion probably explained some mushy rhythmic balance between the sections as the pace of the work built, but the orchestra’s bassoons were on point and first clarinet Timothy Orpen sparkled for the first of many solo moments over the evening.
Orpen was a crucial ingredient in the Liszt as well, and conductor Elim Chan found parallels with the Dukas in the dramatic shaping of the work as its later sequence of movements unfolded. Those mourning the loss of the Tan Dun were often reminded that the piano is a percussion instrument in Vondracek’s powerful playing and together he and Chan constructed a compelling case for a work that is not a common inclusion in concert programmes at present. His addition of a Chopin Nocturne as an encore did rather emphasise its melodic debts, however.
All of this built towards the evening’s planned conclusion with Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra as if always intended. Here the RSNO strings sounded more focussed from the start and Chan’s command of the work’s meticulous structure was masterly. There would be no sense in singling out individual soloists because there were quality performances throughout the orchestra. A superb reading of a masterwork, it deserved a fuller house.
Going by the first few Queen’s Hall morning concerts this year, audience figures can only get better. The two performances – Saturday’s chamber miscellany by players from Festival residents the Philharmonia Orchestra, and Monday’s piano trio fronted by wild-haired pianist Ronald Brautigam – certainly warranted a little more support than they got.
In what was no doubt a pertinent nod to Hans Gál’s role in helping initiate the Edinburgh International Festival in 1947, the Philharmonia Chamber Players began with a string trio by the Edinburgh-based academic and composer who fled his native Vienna after the 1938 Nazi Anschluss. Those who know Gál’s music – heavily rooted in Brahmsian rhetoric, but tinged with hints of wider European progressiveness – will appreciate its fundamental austerity and stinging seriousness.
There was a sense of deference in this performance, which struggled initially to define much character in the opening movement, but which seemed more open and at ease in the wittier Presto and resourceful Theme and Variations. It’s a style of music that requires, but didn’t always get, persistent emotional initiative from the performers.
Richard Strauss’ Metamorphosen was the game-changer, especially in this novel (to most of us) version for string septet, a considerable reduction on the standard 23-string version that Strauss opted for in its 1946 premiere. The composer evidently drafted the condensed version early on in the compositional process, but it remained unknown until it was rediscovered in 1990, which encouraged the cellist Rudolf Leopold to prepare a performance edition.
If the obvious effect is to trim the fuller version of its sugared opulence, the leaner instrumentation does not lack the passion and heartache that lies at the core of Strauss’ postwar threnody to German culture. Yes, there is a sharpened focus, but as this performance illustrated, that can be its strength. Led by violinist Zsolt-Tihamér Visontay, the septet harnessed the music’s rapt momentum, distinguished by the pulsating clarity and unceasing interaction of their playing.
The player numbers were maximised for Louise Farrenc’s Nonet in E flat, as important for its 19th century craftsmanship as for its composer, a woman in what was then almost exclusively a man’s world. Farrenc was no shrinking violet, demanding and winning equal pay for women on the staff at the Paris Conservatoire in 1850, well before the BBC and Glasgow City Council faced a similar challenge from its female employees.
Coolish to begin with, this performance blossomed into the peach that this work is, solidly symphonic in structure, yet relaxed in its versatile mix of playfulness, lyrical sweetness and robust argument. Like Schubert’s Octet, the juxtaposition of strings and wind is defining, often the source of wit.
Fast forward to Monday, when pianist Ronald Brautigam exercised his musical eccentricity playing a 19th century Erard piano that was the centrepiece of a piano trio programme he shared with violinist Esther Hoppe and cellist Christian Poltéra. The instrument was the defining feature in music by Fanny Mendelssohn (sister of Felix), Robert Schumann and Franz Schubert.
What did it bring to the performances? Initially a slight awkwardness, admittedly on my part, gradually tuning into the tonal containment of an instrument that soon proved its worth in recalibrating the modern piano trio to a shared dynamic more commensurate to the 19th century origins of the music. Instead of the dominating power exercised by the modern-day Steinway, here was an instrument more modest in volume, more delicately voiced, yet technically capable – as in the finale of Schubert’s Piano Trio No 2 in E flat – of quick repetition on one note.
The Schubert dominated the programme, both in length and substance. It’s not so long since East Neuk Festival-goers will have heard it in Crail with Elisabeth Leonskaja on piano. This was like another piece altogether, Brautigam’s pianism brilliantly versatile, yet possessing a scale and sweetness of tone that allowed Hoppe and Poltéra ample scope to explore the softest nuances in the knowledge their sound would carry over even the busiest of piano textures.
The first half paired the boldness of Mendelssohn’s Piano Trio in D minor, from its turbulent opening to the melodic freshness of the inner movements, with the characterful contrasts of Schumann’s Fantasiestücke, its flirtatious Humoreske and the loving expressiveness of the Duett shared by violin and cello among its many highlights.
In any typical year for the Edinburgh International Festival, Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana would hardly be considered a genuine heavyweight opener to the Usher Hall orchestral series. Even for this historic 75th anniversary event, and in its more immediate relevance as the back-to-life adrenalin shot after two years of pandemic suppression, it is a cantata more generally regarded as a populist blast – to some extent the German composer’s one-hit wonder – offering more quick-hit than deep-rooted resonance.
It avoided that pitfall on two counts. This high-octane programme opened with Respighi’s Pines of Rome, affording a psychedelic wonderland of orchestra colouring, moments of seething harmonic adventure, and yes, its own brand of unadulterated thrill. The Orff, itself, had as its messenger the ravishing combination of the BBC SSO, Edinburgh Festival Chorus, NYCOS National Girls Choir and a glorious trio of soloists under Sir Donald Runnicles’ magisterial baton. No absence of emotional impact, then, but justified by its general excellence.
The Pines of Rome – a lustrous sequence of responses to Roman life set against the binding metaphor of the ancient trees that dominate its landscape, and one of the Italian composer’s trilogy of Rome-inspired works – is a stirring creation, its sound world reeking of Mediterranean warmth, historical mystery and sun-filled optimism.
As such, it was right up Runnicles’ street. He inspired a swashbuckling performance, red hot from the offset, a kaleidoscopic feast that explored every level of aural titillation from quietly succulent to feverishly terrifying. No more so than in the final moments, a seemingly limitless crescendo in which the gradual addition of rearguard offstage brass (spread liberally behind the dress circle audience) and the thundering might of the organ drove the decibel level to delirious heights.
This was adequate preparation for the primal force that is Carmina Burana. For so many of us, more used to the deliberately modest stage forces preferred in the recent exit-from-Covid months, it was a glorious sensation – the massed vision of the orchestra and choirs made all the more electrifying by the vivid combination of red-shirted NYCOS choir and black-clad adult choir and orchestra.
The singing was just as exhilarating, the wholesome precision of the Festival Chorus offset by the pristine projection of the youngsters, especially in such famously fervent numbers as Tempus est iocundum. Not every moment held perfectly together, with some panic-rushing by the men near the start and moments of under-projection from the women, but the sheer vocal ebullience that spilled out from the stage, and from the resplendent SSO, was mesmerising.
Then there was the tastiest icing on the cake from three perfectly-matched soloists, the soprano Meechot Marrero, tenor Sunnyboy Dladla and baritone Thomas Lehman, whose theatrical antics brought a lascivious edge to what were already riveting musical presentations. Marrero and Lehman hammed up the Cours d’Amours no end, flirting mercilessly in the process. Dladla, too, realised the dramatic potential in his caricature Roasted Swan showpiece.
It was exactly what the doctor ordered, intoxicating escapism to wash away the prevailing gloom and welcome joy, mindless or not, back into our lives.
Retiring EIF director Fergus Linehan has identified residencies as a key ingredient in reducing the carbon footprint of the industry, and the presence of Garsington Opera and the Philharmonia Orchestra in Edinburgh at the start of his last programme is part of that. The suggestion must be that the Buckinghamshire company could become a regular partner of the Festival in the way that Glyndebourne was 75 years ago.
This is a big thing for Garsington as well as Edinburgh, as making work for a big proscenium arch indoor stage is new to them, and it will be hoping that such a showcase may lead to further outings for this production as well as more new work travelling to Scotland. Edinburgh has seen many visually stunning opera productions from European companies (Turin’s Boheme five years ago springs instantly to mind), and the good news is that director Jack Furness and designer Tom Piper’s Rusalka can stand happily in such company.
Regular visits by Garsington might also mean the frequent return of Natalya Romaniw, as the company has nurtured the career of the Swansea soprano, and that would also be no bad thing. She was cheered to the rafters by the opening night audience – acclaim that was matched only by the reception for homecoming conductor Douglas Boyd.
Romaniw is absolutely at the peak of her powers, both vocally and as an actor. Furness and Piper have incorporated aerial artists into the watery world of the spirit and her cohorts, and there is a fair amount of crossover in the onstage action, for Romaniw on her own as well as with the three nymphs, Marlena Devoe, Heather Lowe and Stephanie Wake-Edwards. Often ankle-deep in water, the whole cast seem to revel in the elemental aspects of the staging.
That physicality not only chimed nicely with the Festival’s opening event, MACRO at Murrayfield, and the acrobatics of Australia’s Gravity & Other Myths there, but is part of a trend in contemporary opera production also to be seen in Phelim McDermott’s staging of Glass’s Akhnaten with Gandini Juggling. The aerialists here serve a similar purpose in keeping the stage full of action during the crucial instrumental passages of Dvorak’s score.
Boyd and the Philharmonia are as pivotal to the story-telling as that music unfolds, with its vocabulary of themes tied to the characters. Those three nymphs immediately suggest the Ring’s Rhinemaidens, and the Wagnerian parallels were also obvious in Christine Rice’s characterful Jezibaba and Musa Ngqungwana’s ambiguous, ambivalent Vodnik.
On the human side of the story, Gerald Schneider brings a wealth of experience in the role to the Prince and Sky Ingram, who has played the title role, is a stylish, predatory Foreign Princess. However, for all the individual brilliance – amongst the orchestral soloists in the pit as well as onstage – this Rusalka is ultimately a very fine ensemble creation. The darkest of adult fairytales, as far from Disney’s Little Mermaid as you might imagine, it is full of contemporary resonances 120 years on from its premiere – and they leap quite startlingly from the surtitle text in this Czech language production.
Further performances on Monday and Tuesday. eif.co.uk
Douglas Boyd makes a rare return to his native Scotland conducting Garsington Opera’s Rusalka at the Edinburgh International Festival. He talks to KEN WALTON
Since turning exclusively to conducting 16 years ago, the former oboist, Glasgow-born Douglas Boyd, has forged a solid reputation among fellow musicians as an out-and-out enthusiast. They warm to his lack of airs and graces, no doubt informed by his first-hand understanding of how orchestral players respond and operate. His own playing career took the now 63-year-old from principal oboe and founding member of the Chamber Orchestra of Europe to recitalist in such auspicious venues as New York’s Carnegie Hall.
When he eventually laid down the double reed in favour of a single baton, he had already successfully tested the water as music director of Manchester Camerata. He has since held leading conducting positions with the Orchester Musikkollegium Winterthur, the Paris Chamber Orchestra, and in the US the St Paul Chamber Orchestra and Colorado Symphony Orchestra.
But it’s in his capacity as artistic director of Garsington Opera, a post he has held for the last ten years, that Boyd will star in the opening few days of this year’s Edinburgh International Festival. On Saturday, the Buckingham-based company brings its recent new production of Dvorak’s fairy-tale opera Rusalka to the Edinburgh Festival Theatre, where it plays – with the Philharmonia Orchestra in the pit, Welsh soprano Natalya Romaniw in the title role, and circus artists adding to the spectacle – for three performances.
Boyd is delighted to be returning to Scotland. “It means a lot to be back,” he says. “I hardly ever perform there, but have been recently, working with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra during the pandemic and more recently doing an utterly inspiring project with junior students at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland.”
Already, this new Rusalka has attracted rosy comment. Reviewers of last month’s Garsington opening were intrigued by the action-packed staging directed by Jack Furness – who next week will escape Edinburgh to launch his new outdoor production of Bernstein’s Candide in Glasgow for Scottish Opera – and who were especially won over by Boyd’s luxurious realisation of one of Dvorak’s most impressive operatic scores.
“I think it’s one of the great fin de siècle masterpieces,” claims the conductor. “I feel I’m conducting the best music that’s ever been written. We tend to focus on one single aria, the Song to the Moon, but in the broader sense it’s the way Dvorak paints this fantastic text, not only in the vocal line, but throughout the orchestral score. It’s all very Wagnerian, he adds, “where every emotion and symbol is painted in sound.”
While it’s a fairy tale, it’s very much the adult variety, he argues. “You have to remember that the concept of fairly tales nowadays has been so Disneyfied and made into a children’s genre, whereas if you go back to the Brothers Grimm or Hans Christian Andersen, it’s actually about our deepest fears as people, which starts in childhood and continues through adulthood. Grimms’ tales can be really horrific and scary; there’s an element of that in Rusalka as well.”
Indeed so. Dvorak’s librettist Jaroslav Kvapil fashioned Rusalka on Andersen’s The Little Mermaid. Rusalka, a water nymph, wishes to become a human in order to capture the love of a Prince. The witch, Jezibaba, obliges, but with conditions: Rusalka must remain mute and the Prince must remain true to her. A Foreign Princess plots against them, the Prince rejects Rusalka, then repents. But the curse holds and a desperate kiss leads to the Prince’s death. Rusalka disappears into the watery depths.
It’s possible, says Boyd, to sense that foreboding in the orchestral score well before tragedy reveals its hand on stage. “As in Wagner, there are leitmotifs for each character, like the Rusalka theme at the beginning which is so incredibly beautiful, but when it comes back at the very end of Act 3, it does so as a funeral march. The truth is it’s been a funeral march the whole time, but it takes you until then to finally make that realisation.”
The story in this production is expressed in the original Czech, which Boyd and Furness both see as essential in reflecting the perfect symbiosis of Kvapil’s text and Dvorak’s music. “As long as you’ve got the supertitles in front of you, you get the best of both words. With a good translation you’re not excluding the audience, you’re embracing them, bringing them in. However, the stresses of the Czech language are so intrinsic to Dvorak’s music. The danger sometimes of singing it in English is it can get quite eggy, like trying to fit a square into a circle.”
But there’s always plenty to feast the eyes on in a production that aims to highlight the opera’s to-ing and fro-ing between the world of nymphs and the human world. “We’ve got aerialists [drilled by circus choreographer Lina Johansson] and pretty spectacular things going on on stage which is actually true to this halfway house,” says Boyd. Their presence has also enabled the production to fill Dvorak’s extended orchestral passages with additional representational movement.
For Boyd, the experience has cemented his view that Dvorak’s legacy as as opera composer has been unjustly underappreciated. “I think we tend to fixate on his instrumental output, on the last couple of symphonies, the chamber music, the Cello Concerto,” he argues. “But I think Rusalka is the product of a composer absolutely at the peak of his powers.”
Under the current regime, Scottish Opera likes to name things literally – “Opera Highlights”, “Live at No 40” – and there could be no more apposite name for the current cohort of what used to be called “Connect” than “Scottish Opera Young Company”. The new work that is having just four public performances in the rehearsal space at the top of the HQ building at Glasgow’s Charing Cross is both essentially a tale for and by young people and a superb ensemble performance. However unlikely it may be that all 21 of these talented youngsters go on to professional musical careers, they will always have this achievement to boast of.
Composer Gareth Williams and librettist Johnny McKnight have given them a bold piece to get their collective teeth into. The Rubble of the title is the ruin of a 1980s care home, Findenterran Farm, where young people were taken for their own safety, only to be subject to abuse. Told both by the characters at the time and their older selves looking back from the present day, the parallels with recent criminal proceedings and public inquiries do not need explanation. In his trademark style, McKnight nonetheless manages to bring broad humour and just enough leavening sentimentality to the subject matter. Director Roxana Haines’ insistence that neither the central abused child nor the perpetrator of the abuse is ever portrayed by an individual onstage is key to both the drama of the staging and that crucial ensemble feel to the production.
That Williams and McKnight have experience of working in partnership is obvious in the music. There are echoes of Philip Glass – particularly in the finger-counting of piano lessons early in the piece – and of Stephen Sondheim in some of the phrasing of lyrics, and when the music lands on a melodious phrase, the composer makes sure it lodges in the consciousness. Scored for single strings, percussion, accordion and piano, under the baton of Chris Gray, there are some lovely touches in the instrumentation, but the focus is always on the chorus, save just two longer arias. Soprano Shuna Scott Sendal, the sole professional singer, has a perfectly-timed double-edged moment as the staff member taking refuge in drink, and Haydn Cullen takes his opportunity to deliver the score’s pivotal revelatory song with stylish confidence. As new arrival Jude, who pairs up with the home’s Queen Bee Charlie (Imogen Bews), he sets in motion the chain of events that leads to decisive action by Sendal’s Mrs Pearson.
In the contained space, audience on two sides and musicians on a third, the fluent choreography of the ensemble is as impressive as the singing. As was quickly pointed out in a Q&A session after the first performance, it is regrettable that such a powerful piece of work will be seen by relatively few people. Although a through-composed operatic work, much of the sound-world is as close to music-theatre and it would not be at all fanciful to see the production enjoying a successful Edinburgh Fringe run. The award-winning work there by much-missed Tramway-based Junction 25 youth theatre company was often brought to mind, and that is high praise.
RSNO music director Thomas Søndergård has been appointed as the new music director of the Minnesota Orchestra, succeeding Finnish conductor (and former BBC SSO principal conductor) Osmo Vänskä, who announced in 2018 that he would end his 19-year reign next season.
Søndergård will serve as music director designate throughout the 2022-23 season before assuming his new post in a 5-year contract that commences with the 2023-24 season. He is to continue in post at the RSNO where his current contract runs until autumn 2024. Commenting on his appointment to the 120-year-old Minneapolis-based band, he said: “My impression of the Minnesota Orchestra is that it is an ensemble with tremendous heart. There is a warmth, an openness and a cooperative spirit among the musicians that fits very well into the way that I like to make music.”
RSNO chief executive Alistair Mackie offered a note of reassurance that the Danish conductor would sustain his relationship with the Glasgow-based orchestra. “It is a great privilege to work with him and we look forward to continuing to develop our programming and performances under his guidance.
“Having toured with Thomas across Europe and America we know how popular he is with audiences, which is a testament to the great connection he has with our musicians and staff. We are fortunate to work in an industry that embraces collaboration and the sharing of great talent, and I can’t wait to see what successes Thomas has in Minnesota.”
Søndergård will join the American orchestra at a key moment in its development. Ten years ago, Vänskä briefly resigned from the post amid a contractual fight between the Minnesota management and its players, siding with the latter in a bitter dispute. His action precipitated a speedy resolution and he was reinstated, thereafter leading the orchestra to Grammy-winning heights.
A statement from Minnesota’s president and CEO Michelle Miller Burns underlined her belief that Søndergård is the right man to carry that success forward. “We were deeply impressed by the connections Thomas has made and the commitment he has shown to the orchestras that he has previously led,” she said.
“He understands the many dimensions of being a music director, including the need to curate imaginative seasons for wide audiences, to bring out the best in musicians and to galvanize the community with an artistic vision. He showed really keen interest in Minnesota and the ways in which we are broadening our programming to include more diversity in composers, creators and artists. His approach is a good fit for our collaborative leadership model. He has the qualities of a great musical leader.”
Søndergård next appears with the RSNO at the Edinburgh international Festival on Tuesday 23 August conducting Mahler’s Third Symphony. In September he will lead Nicola Benedetti and the RSNO in the BBC Proms premiere of Wynton Marsalis’ Violin Concerto. He opens the 2022-23 RSNO season with Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring on Fri 30 Sep (Edinburgh) and Sat 1 Oct (Glasgow). Full details at www.rsno.org.uk
Glasgow’s Royal Conservatoire of Scotland alumnus Ryan Corbett recently became the first player of the accordion to join the BBC’s career-making New Generation Artists scheme, and it is also true that “box” players are a rare sight in the Picture Gallery of Paxton House, the splendid principal venue for the returned Music at Paxton Summer Festival of Chamber Music in the Borders.
The very handsome Italian instrument played by the young man from Milngavie made an impressive noise under the glass cupola of the portrait-and-landscape-lined room, as he spanned centuries of music composed for much larger keyboards as well as his own.
The Bach Prelude & Fugue and Scarlatti Sonata with which he began displayed that range, as well his own remarkable virtuosity. I am not clear how it is possible to achieve the variation in voice, as well as tone and dynamics, we heard in his approach to music written for organ and piano, but it was certainly audible. And the visual advantage of the front-facing accordion is that his remarkably dextrous technique could not have been easier to admire.
His arrangements of Tchaikovsky’s Romance in F Minor and Mendelssohn’s Rondo Capriccioso also made familiar music very fresh, the latter sounding as if it were written for the instrument, and the former acquiring a flavour of the Left Bank in Paris.
French composer Franck Angelis also featured in the recital, his Etude adapting a theme of Astor Piazzolla. The Argentinian master’s influence could be heard in the third movement of the Sonata No 1 for accordion by Alexander Nagaev, although the first shared rhythms with Meade Lux Lewis’s Honky Tonk Train Blues and the second the dramatic atmosphere of Phantom of the Opera.
Corbett’s encore of Semionov’s Don Rhapsody also came from the school of contemporary Russian composition for the instrument, but the most fascinating recent work in the programme was Czech Jindrich Feld’s Konzertstuck, from 1974 and an exploration of the technical limits of the accordion with contrasting spare moments.
Corbett was back on stage at the end of Sunday afternoon, as a guest of the Maxwell Quartet, joining in arrangements of traditional music from Lewis and Shetland that concluded the versatile group’s three year tenure as Music at Paxton’s resident group.
Festival Director Angus Smith was quite clear that he intends to invite them back, but the programme they performed was the perfect conclusion to that relationship. Haydn’s Opus 77 No 2 Quartet in F is the sort of repertoire at which the Maxwell excels, ensemble balance perfect from the start, rhythmic phrases passed round with glee in the second movement, as was the Andante melody, which is Haydn at his loveliest.
It is a surprisingly rare phenomenon – print production schedules being a factor – but the Paxton programme note perfectly matched the group’s performance of Brahms’ 1876 String Quartet No 3, and had the quotes from the composer to match their approach.
As with the Haydn, the slow movement is the most Brahmsian of Brahms, but throughout the piece the players found a lightness of touch that distinguished the performance, especially in the musical playfulness of the third movement and the finale. Not even a short hiatus to rectify a tuning problem with George Smith’s violin disturbed their flow.
The party-piece of this fond “adieu” was a selection from Roxanna Panufnik’s collaboration with poet Wendy Cope, “The Audience”. In singer and broadcaster Jamie MacDougall the quartet had the perfect collaborator for this comic dissection of the theatre of chamber music performance. MacDougall wisely did not labour the rhymes in the text with a characterful delivery of Cope’s storyline, introducing us to the musicians, the critic, the couple on a first date and the interval drinker. Panufnik’s music is as witty in its own style, and as – I think – the only working scribe in this audience, I’ll take her sonic depiction of the anguished crafting of these words over Cope’s cynicism any day!