As the first reports of the Russian attack on Ukraine emerged, Edinburgh International Festival was putting out a press release preparing the way for the unveiling of its 2022 programme, celebrating the event’s 75th anniversary and expected at the end of March.
The Festival is likely to find itself the focus of attention over cultural sanctions before the big reveal however. Its Honorary President, and regular visiting superstar conductor, is Valery Gergiev, a close friend and associate of Vladimir Putin, who has regularly expressed his support for the Russian president and his actions.
Gergiev was due to conduct the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra at New York’s Carnegie Hall this evening in the first of three concerts, but the Austrian orchestra will now be conducted by the music director of the Metropolitan Opera, Yannick Nezet-Seguin. Russian pianist Denis Matsuev, who has also expressed support for President Putin, has similarly been dropped from the New York concerts.
In Italy, where Gergiev has been conducting performances of Tchaikovsky’s The Queen of Spades at Teatro alla Scala in Milan, the mayor of the city has instructed theatre management to sack the conductor if he fails to explicitly condemn the invasion of Ukraine.
Gergiev last appeared at the Edinburgh Festival when he conducted the RSNO and pianist Steven Osborne in the temporary concert hall tent at Edinburgh Academy Junior School last summer (reviewed by Vox Carnyx here: https://voxcarnyx.com/2021/08/20/rsno-gergiev-osborne/). With his singular conducting style, he is one the world’s most admired musicians, but his association with Putin has long been controversial.
The conductor was announced as Honorary President at the end of the 2011 Festival, the third musician to hold the title in the event’s history, succeeding Yehudi Menuhin and Charles Mackerras. The appointment marked 20 years of association with the EIF, bringing the Mariinsky Opera (previously the Kirov) to Edinburgh, and directing international orchestras. A Mariinsky production of Strauss’s Die Frau ohne Schatten closed the 2011 programme at the Festival Theatre.
A year later Gergiev appeared in a television ad for Putin’s presidential campaign and in 2014 he endorsed the annexation of Crimea. In 2016 he conducted a televised propaganda concert from the Syrian city of Palmyra after Russian air strikes assisted President Bashar al-Assad.
Putin awarded the conductor a Hero of Labour medal the same year and has funded a new opera house for the Mariinsky in St Petersburg, where the men have shared roots.
While Gergiev and other vocal supporters of the Russian president have found themselves in the front line of sanctions in the cultural field, there have been calls for a wider boycott of Russian artists in protest against the action in Ukraine, regardless of their views on the country’s leader. German pianist and conductor Lars Vogt is amongst those who have said they will not play in the country or share a platform with Russian artists who support Putin in the current situation, while others have called for “a full cultural boycott” of Russia.
A spokesman for the the Edinburgh International Festival said: “The title of Honorary President has been given to a range of artists in the festival history, people who have made important artistic contributions to the festival. Valery Gergiev was named as Honorary President 11 years ago and it remains an honorific title”.
Henry Purcell, in his wicked moments, had fun with canons. On the face of it, they were innocent trifles, but combine the layers of successive voice entries and hey presto, tawdry language emerged from the wilful collision of syllables and vowels.
In Aidan Oliver’s delightful final day presentation at the Festival, featuring members of his Edinburgh Festival Chorus and small instrumental ensemble, the air remained pure as he and his musicians breezed their way through a short but engaging canonic journey.
It was as much a journey through time. The opening Sumer is icumen in, rooted in 13th century origins and famous for its rousing presence in cult film The Wicker Man, paved the way for a variety of styles and treatments from 17th century Thomas Ravenscroft (his rousing fusion of Three Country Dances presented simultaneously as a round), to one of 20th century Benjamin Britten’s “Friday Afternoon” songs for children (his somewhat darkened version of Old Abram Brown), to the even more up-to-date sounds of Errollyn Wallen, Richard Crossland and Abbie Betinis.
Wallen’s Rice and Beans – and Plantains Too takes its structural inspiration from the Britten, but otherwise is laced with the eclectic contemporary twists this composer always utilises to energising effect. The title refers to a favourite dish from her birthplace in Belize, and here was a performance that served it up a treat, rhythmically infectious and with smiling countenance. It was also a neat little appendix to Wallen’s opera Dido’s Ghost, one of this year’s earlier Festival successes.
Other contemporary gems on Sunday included Betinis’ plaintive Be like a bird, with its surreal whistled conclusion, Crossland’s whimsical Liverpool Street Station, and Bob Chilcott’s updating of Tallis’ Canon, which takes an old favourite and wraps it in a blanket of melting, thick-set harmonies.
One of the benefits in hearing the EIF Chorus in miniature is to experience it in a scale of repertoire it would otherwise not have time for. When do Holst’s partsongs ever make it onto an international festival platform? Three of them did so here, exposing their lush sentiment and charm.
All of this could so easily have seemed like a casual miscellany. But thanks to Oliver’s personable and informative spoken links, the whole came together as seamless, directional and enjoyable.
And it ended on a familiar note, Pachelbel’s Canon, but with the addition of Thomas Campion’s poem “Come, o come my life’s delight” as a neatly interwoven text, arranged by Oliver himself, and – as has so often been the case in this semi-outdoor Festival – a timely intervention from the outside world. On the words “come then and make thy flight” an outgoing plane roared overhead. Perversely. I’ve quite enjoyed these moments. Ken Walton
Fortunate indeed is the young singer who secures the services of Malcolm Martineau as accompanist. Alongside mezzo Catriona Morison and contralto Jess Dandy, Egyptian soprano Fatma Said is one such, a young woman blazing a trail for her nationality on the international stage.
This recital was a demonstration of her range, and an encapsulation of a career that has embraced singing Pamina in The Magic Flute at La Scala, Milan and the award-winning genre-hopping debut album Le Nour, on which Martineau plays.
The pianist had clearly learned the lessons of working in this venue at the start of the Festival and had his partner as close as was possible. At times, in fact, she leant towards the pianist even as she kept her focus on the rapt audience.
Her opera training shone through her Mozart selections, and especially in the delivery of the Goethe-setting Das Veilchen and the anonymous, and less than politically-correct, Warnung.
The expertise of her stage partner was especially relevant in the Ravel that followed, Martineau having masterminded a series of French song recordings for Signum Classics. He demonstrated the most sophisticated of touches in the trills that begin the French composer’s Five Popular Greek Songs. The fourth one in particular looks towards the Middle East in its melody and set up the three from Sheherazade that followed, the last of those, L’indifferent, surely a homo-erotic pre-echo of The Girl From Ipanema.
There was a return to highly polished and sparkling brevity in both vocal line and accompaniment for the Seven Popular Spanish Songs of Manuel de Falla, the lovely Moorish lullaby from which was mirrored by the middle of three Old Spanish Songs by Federico Garcia Lorca. For the last of those and the Zarzuela encore, it would have been no surprise if the sassy Said had produced a pair of castanets.
It was not the fireworks-accompanying with which the SCO usually winds up its Festival commitments, but there was excitement nonetheless in the orchestra’s sole outing at full strength in the 2021 programme.
Scarcely longer than a fireworks concert, that brevity was in part explained by the late substitution of conductor with the withdrawal of Japanese Kazushi Ono due to quarantine-related travel complications. In one of remarkably few such changes this year, French conductor, and former Music Director of the Tonhalle-Orchester Zurich, Lionel Bringuier, took on the bulk of the pre-announced programme.
The casualty was Takemitsu’s Tree Line, but Toshio Hosokawa’s Blossoming II survived, surely because it was already known by many of the players, who premiered the EIF commission a decade ago under Robin Ticciati. The precisely-titled piece starts with a single unfolding note on the strings which opens out to embrace the rest of the orchestra before acquiring a bolder rhythmic pulse through bass drum, bass clarinet, double bassoon and string basses, with some virtuosic flurries from the string and wind principals.
There is also blossoming orchestration in Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin with its teasing first movement before the delayed arrival of the Forlane tune in the second. In this most lyrical of memorials, there was some beautiful oboe playing and Bringuier brought a particular finesse to the final bars of the Menuet, perfection not quite repeated at the conclusion of the Rigaudon.
Prokofiev’s contemporary “Classical” Symphony suggested further encounters between orchestra and conductor should be eagerly anticipated. Although there will always be a suggestion that the precocious composer was winding up the musical establishment with his referencing of old forms, there is no pastiche in his Symphony No 1. From the opening Allegro it was played here with real vigour and emphasis, and at pace, with an especially physical performance from the ensemble of strings. Hopefully there is much more to come from Bringuier with the SCO. Keith Bruce
Richard Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos may well be the unintended outcome of a failed theatrical idea by librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal. It was intended as a brief postlude to Hofmannsthal’s adaptation of a Molière play. But there’s little doubt that what it eventually became – a prologue and opera combined into one remarkable piece of convoluted dialectic whimsy – is entertainment well worth having.
For someone of Strauss’ infinite compositional versatility, the challenge must have been irresistible, scintillatingly evident in this restless cinematic two-hour score, a seething mass of heated musical imagery in which heaving Wagnerian catharses seamlessly switch to witty, chattering parody in the blink of an eye. With a storyline designed to incite the cultural tensions between high opera and burlesque-style, you can hear what he was getting at.
It’s also an opera that requires complex and careful casting, which this high-energy concert-style staging by Louise Muller fully achieves. The 17-strong vocal line-up has the advantage of a virtuoso edge-of-the-seat RSNO performance to support them, under the alert musical stewardship of German conductor, Lothar Koenigs.
It also has Dorothea Röschmann as Ariadne, a diva in the best sense, whose biggest moment arrives, as with David Butt Philip’s imposing Bacchus, in the euphoric closing moments of the opera. In a fit of burgeoning ecstasy she unleashes the full welter of her limitless instrument.
That all seems a world away from the domestic hustle and bustle of the opening Prologue, anchored by Thomas Quasthoff’s (spoken) Major Domo, and where Catriona Morison puts in one of her finest performances as the precious Composer, while around her the commedia dell’arte figures wreak havoc, not least Brenda Rae as the flighty, rather sexy, Zerbinetta. Her male sidekicks do a nifty song and dance routine with inflatable palm trees, and generally make mischief. Peter Bronder cuts a scampish Dancing Master to Martin Gantner’s common sense Music Master.
If the shadow of Wagner envelops the very end, there’s also an earlier hint of it in the three nymphs – Liv Redpath, Claire Barnett-Jones and Soraya Mafi – who, like Rhine maidens reborn, relate Ariadne’s fate as the duel-fuelled entertainment finally gathers steam. This is also where Rae’s Zerbinetta gets to exercise her piercing coloratura.
It’s a riveting show that fires on every cylinder. Ken Walton
That German pianist Hartmut Holl was in traditional full fig of white tie and tails seemed only appropriate. We are so used to hearing fine young voices, especially sopranos, that – if Renee Fleming will forgive the ungallant observation – one that is older, and run-in, comes as a welcome treat.
That, however, was only a small part of the truth of this varied and delightful recital, presented with all the conversational aplomb you would expect. Yes, there was Richard Strauss, the composer Fleming described as “the great love of my musical life” and whose Four Last Songs she will perform next week at Austria’s Grafenegg Festival with the Filarmonica della Scala di Milano. There was more theatre in her performance of a pair of his songs, Muttertandelei and Waldseligkeit, than in anything that had gone before, and she also bowed out with him, the last of three encores.
Elsewhere, however, she was happily exploring new ground, some of which will feature on a forthcoming album, themed on the consolations of the natural world that helped so many of us over the past year and a half. After Handel provided a prayer of thanksgiving and a meditation, her selection of Faure songs were all pinnacles in his vast catalogue: the ominous Prison, and the ambiguous Les berceaux, which puns darkly on the word “cradles” in a way that makes equal sense in English, with lighter fare of Reve d’amour and Au bord de l’eau framing the group.
Three of Grieg’s Opus 48 Sechs Lieder followed, somewhat surprisingly her first performances of them. The gravitas she brought to the last of them, Ein Traum, belied that recent acquaintance, while Zur Rosenzeit, which precedes it, might have been written with her voice and personality in mind.
That was certainly true of Evening, by contemporary American composer Kevin Puts, setting a poem by Dorianne Laux. Puts is the composer of a new opera version of Michael Cunningham’s modernist novel The Hours, which became a Stephen Daldry-directed and Philip Glass-scored film starring Meryl Streep, Julianne Moore and Nicole Kidman. Fleming returns to the stage of the New York Met for the opera’s premiere next year, and this fine new song is a spin-off from that relationship. It was followed by a version of Joni Mitchell’s Both Sides Now that boasted a lovely piano arrangement for Holl, and made the argument for the demolition of boundaries in music-making without the singer needing to say a word.
To perform Robert Schumann’s 16-song cycle Dichterliebe, setting the verse of Heinrich Heine, is a mighty undertaking. To do so twice in quick succession, to meet the audience social distancing requirements at this year’s Festival, and add the six Heine settings in Schubert’s posthumously-published Schwanengesang to the recital, is to demonstrate vocal fitness of Olympic standard.
Further than that, however, Canadian baritone Gerald Finley and pianist Julius Drake had clearly considered the move to an outdoor venue with great care. This was a very deliberate Dichterliebe indeed, with very careful pacing and the dynamics of the performance honed to perfection.
Finley stood well back from the onstage microphones, and it was quite impossible to tell how much of the sound reaching the ears of the audience was being enhanced. The singer at full stretch was quite capable of defeating extraneous contributions from the world outside, and it was a joy to hear him in a way that he might have tempered in the Queen’s Hall. Der Atlas, which opened the Schubert selection, was muscular and powerful enough to bear the weight of the world indeed.
Finley’s delivery was not all about power though. He has the full spectrum of volume and expression across his entire vocal range, and showed it over the arc of the Schumann. Im Rhein began on sonorous form but there was real tenderness at the start of Hor ich das Liedchen klingen and a gentle poignancy to Am leuchtenden Sommermorgen. Drake’s pianism matched his flexibility with sparkling phrasing on Das ist ein Floten und Geigen and deliciously spare playing on Ich hab’ im Traum.
The fatalism of Die alten bosen Lieder and its long piano outro were rewarded with respectful silence before the applause, a response repeated after the ominous Der Doppelganger closed the Schubert selection.
The Edinburgh Festival director who preceded Fergus Linehan, Jonathan Mills, was first to appreciate the growing appetite for early music and put it on the event’s main stages. It seemed bold in the first decade of the new millennium but is now absolutely mainstream, with Nicola Benedetti’s new Baroque band and vivacious Kansas mezzo Joyce DiDonato’s partnership with European period outfit Il Pomo d’Oro two of the hottest tickets in the 2021 programme.
DiDonato’s entrance, and indeed presence (stage centre of course), was much more that of the star frontwoman, although she ceded a fair share of the stage time to her instrumental colleagues, directed from the violin by Bulgarian Zefira Valova. It was, however, rare that their Monteverdi, Rameau and Handel dovetailed with the selection of arias that the singer has entitled “My Favourite Things” and that contributed to the difficulties with a performance that was slow to click into gear.
Following her first song, in fact, there was a pause on stage in clear expectation of applause that failed to materialise. Relations were quickly more cordial, with the drama of DiDonato’s Addio Roma from L’incoronazioni di Poppea, and then the expansion of the onstage septet to a full eight-violins-and-winds ensemble, but it was over half way through the programme before there was a genuine and sincere ovation, and the sequencing of the material remained a problem to the end. The inclusion of a Dowland lute song in the final fifteen minutes brought things to a standstill, with the rest of the players left twiddling their thumbs.
There were plenty of highlights, including Piangero la sorte mia, from Handel’s Giulio Cesare, when the balance between voice, strings and continuo was pretty much perfect, and DiDonato’s superb voice and dramatic delivery had ample opportunity to shine, but if this selection really merits the description of her “favourites” it was odd that she needed the score on the stand for many of them.
Fans of Maxim Emelyanychev, who directed this team’s award-winning In War and Peace album before he became Principal Conductor of the SCO, might say that the addition of the dynamic young conductor to this recital could well have bound the programme together much more successfully.
A week after these Edinburgh Festival performances, Barrie Kosky and Katharine Mehrling take their Kurt Weill cabaret to the composer’s birthplace, Dessau, for the Kurt Weill Festival. The pianist, and musical director of the show, suggests – probably with just a little camp exaggeration – that this is akin to Daniel and the lions den. Professor Kosky’s thesis is that the German view of Weill is that he wrote nothing of worth after his collaboration with Bertolt Brecht, and Lonely House is entirely composed of songs from the composer’s exile in Paris and then New York.
Clearly the Australian Intendant and Chief Director of the Komische Oper Berlin is comfortable and confident in his position there, and as the architect of a recent Threepenny Opera who is currently rehearsing The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, he is also enamoured of the Brecht/Weill catalogue. More to the point, perhaps, is that Germany is very familiar with Weimar-era Weill and he and his singer have a lot of material that will surprise and delight the composer’s home audience.
Those of us more familiar with Broadway Weill may also make discoveries in this programme, particularly among the Paris songs. Le grand Lustucru, Youkali, and Train du ciel are all from 1934’s Marie Galante, while Complainte de la Seine is a stand-alone from the same year, and all are much more than worth the archaeology, being fine additions to the canon. Mehrling, who is from a village near Frankfurt, is as relaxed and comfortable in French – and a noted interpreter of Edith Piaf repertoire – as she is in English.
To be plain, Katharine Mehrling is superb. The London-trained and Berlin-based actor and singer is a big name at home and should be an international star. Her superb voice and easy stage presence perhaps put a sheen on the work that is different from the edge other singers bring to Weill’s songs, but she is a very fine musician of great charisma.
More than that, she interprets a lyric beautifully, bringing fresh insight to the familiar September Song and Speak Low and making a captivating journey of a medley from 1941’s Lady in the Dark.
The boisterous presence onstage is Kosky, with his big, theatrical piano style and mission to educate as much as entertain. If ever an opera director embodied his production style, he is that chap, but he also knows real performing talent when he sees and hears it.
Normally it’s just the forces of evil that performers have to deal with in Stravinsky’s satanic music theatre piece The Soldier’s Tale. In the first of Saturday’s two EIF performances, however, the forces of nature had an equal stake in the outcome. Torrential rain battered off the taut roof of the giant Edinburgh Academy tent, cascading over its open sides, adding an apocalyptic dimension to a performance that was already doing pretty well on its own.
This was the last of three programmes in violinist Nicola Benedetti’s week-long Festival residency, which cast her in a more democratic role as equal participant in a roll call of three actors and seven musicians. Not that she failed to showcase her own presence. Her fiery red attire made a distinctive impression against her more sombrely-clad colleagues.
Yet this was a starry cast right across the board. Joining Benedetti was a hand-picked premiere league of instrumentalists, among them names familiar to Scots audiences, such as clarinettist Maximiliano Martin, bassoonist Ursula Leveaux, double bassist Nicholas Bayley and percussionist Louise Goodwin, all either present of past members of the SCO. Add to that a speaking cast of veteran baritone/opera director Sir Thomas Allen as the narrator, fellow singer Anthony Flaum as the Soldier, and actor Siobhan Redmond as the Devil, working to a simple but cutting presentation devised by Allen.
Stravinsky’s piece, in which a naive soldier falls prey to the devil’s trickery, is a wonderfully gauche parable, spelt out in the acerbic, often grotesque parody of the musical score, and tersely voiced in the script’s well-worn English translation by Michael Flanders and Kitty Black. Thank goodness for the surtitles, though, which compensated those moments in which Allen’s otherwise lyrically-intoned narration, albeit amplified, was obscured by the ensemble, or when that intervening deluge threatened to drown out the entire cast.
Otherwise, this was a slick and captivating show. Flaum’s happy-go-lucky Soldier proved a convincingly wretched foil to Redmond’s manipulative, chameleon-like performance, her variable personae distinguished by a shifting repertoire of accents. Interaction with the music was vital and seamless, Benedetti leading an ensemble whose animated incision made easy meat of Stravinsky’s mischievously virtuosic score, brilliantly capturing its catchy, bittersweet irony. Ken Walton
Whatever happened to Trojan hero Aeneas after that calamitous chapter of his story related in Purcell’s opera Dido and Aeneas? Part of the answer can be found in Ovid, or better still in Errollyn Wallen’s new opera Dido’s Ghost, which received its Scottish premiere on Friday by the Dunedin Consort at the Edinburgh International Festival.
We learn now that Aeneas’ previous departure from Carthage and the ensuing suicide of his lover Dido, was not the end of the affair. Now established in Italy, Aeneas is married to the high-maintenance Lavinia, but Dido’s sister Anna mysteriously appears, washed up as a refugee, reawakening the deceptions of the past and the dying curse that Dido issued against the Trojan race.
The magic of this opera has not simply been for Wallen, her song-writing librettist Wesley Stace and stage director Frederic Wake-Walker to carve out a straightforward sequel. Instead, they have taken the entirety of Purcell’s opera, positioned it as a flashback play within a play, and composed a narrative around it that reexamines the present in the context of the past in a bid to resolve unfinished business.
The lattice of intrigues it creates is beguiling, and Wallen’s score plays its part in fully achieving that. To hand are the Baroque specialists of the co-commissioning Dunedin Consort, both its splendid period instrument band and hot-blended cohort of singers, from which soloists emerge to enact sundry bit parts.
To that, though, she adds percussion and electric bass guitar, used to juicy effect in defining the time shifts, as in the really cool bass riff that wrenches us from authentic Purcellian masque to smoky interjection by the jealous Lavinia. More subtle are the occasional Purcell quotes that Wallen couches in steamy jazz harmonies.
But it’s the holistic power of this concert-style production that is its winning card. Dunedin conductor John Butt masterminds a mostly slick musical performance, around which Wake-Walker’s cast weave a mesmerising theatrical tapestry, thanks to their cumulative energy and sharp characterisations.
Sopranos Golda Schultz and Nardus Williams are a potent double presence as Anna (doubling as Dido) and Belinda. As Lavinia, gritty mezzo soprano Allison Cook spits venom with unbridled conviction, matched by the stentorian malevolence of Henry Waddington’s Sorcerer. Those secondary roles sung by chorus members, from the wacky witches to Aeneas’ dutiful son Ascanius (tenor David Lee), are every bit as vital.
At the emotional heart of Dido’s Ghost, however, is Matthew Brook’s towering portrayal of Aeneas, which, with Wallen’s and Stace’s evocative writing, invests in the character a human depth that Purcell opted not to explore to any great extent in his own opera. It’s Aeneas’ moment, and Brook laps it up. He even pinches Dido’s famous Lament, but with an interpretational twist that makes it very much his own. Ken Walton
There was a marked drop in temperature on Wednesday evening in the giant tent that has been such a successful venue thus far for EIF orchestral concerts. It didn’t help, perhaps, that the RSNO Strings’ all-Russian programme, under conductor Valery Gergiev, ran well over it’s appointed time – thus the partial audience exodus during the final piece – nor that the roof sheeting was billowing wildly from the harsh gusts of wind.
Yet this was a sizzler to start with. When have we last heard this string section play with such zeal and sonorous depth as evidenced in the meaty opening bars of Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings? It was the perfect vehicle for Gergiev, whose trademark conducting style – a cigarette-sized stick in one hand, the other fluttering incessantly like a butterfly – seemed in this case to communicate a fluidity and eloquence that was manifest in the orchestral response.
That said, there was a noticeable dependance by the orchestra on keeping eye contact with each other, almost manically at times. Is this how Gergiev plays it? Throwing the onus on the players to interact? Whatever, this was a performance that ebbed and flowed with the most natural musicality, that inevitable thematic recap near the end a ripe and satisfying launchpad to the adrenalin-charged sign-off.
That the originally published soloist, pianist Daniil Trifanov, was replaced by Steven Osborne for Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No 1 was no reason to be disappointed. On the contrary, Osborne’s track record in this repertoire proved itself again with a performance in which his dominance was breathtaking. It’s a strange work, with a confusing backstory, the outcome of which is the presence of a solo trumpet acting sometimes as muted commentary to the solo piano, at other times as the icing on the cake. RSNO principal trumpet Christopher Hart played his part sensitively and brilliantly, cool as a cucumber but sharp as a tack.
As for Osborne, he nailed the music’s eccentric temperament, moments of gloom and melancholy that switch without notice between fitful moods of flippancy and rage, joy and the macabre. It all sounded very hairy as the concerto reached is final moments, as if things weren’t quite together, but Osborne’s unflinching reliability and energy was ultimately the steadying force.
Had the concert ended there, we’d have gone home buzzing and electrified. But there was still Stravinsky’s Apollon musagète to go. In the right context its gauche neoclassicism and simple sensuality would have had a welcome presence. But here it struggled, in my mind, to assert itself as a meaningful conclusion, even with the eloquent violin solos of leader Maya Iwabuchi and the generally delightful intricacies of Stravinsky’s ballet score.
Maybe it was the increasing cold, maybe also nature’s outdoor soundtrack interfering with the music’s veiled delicacy. Whatever, it just seemed a little like an anticlimax. Ken Walton
Old College Quad & Edinburgh Academy Junior School
Scheduled to appear at the Queen’s Hall during last year’s cancelled Festival, the chamber group drawn from the Chineke! Orchestra brought a shorter programme to the Old College Quad, and it did Ralph Vaughan Williams few favours. He disowned his early Piano Quintet in C minor and it is undoubtedly less played now than the Nonet by a teenage Samuel Coleridge-Taylor of a decade earlier, which has been championed by Chineke! and recently played by members of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and pianist Tom Poster’s Kaleidoscope Collective.
Even without some poor balance in the sound mix for the quintet, it would have suffered from the comparison, the nonet having better tunes, and more sparkling rhythms. It was also clear that a few of those on the stage have a real passion for the piece, with some great playing from the winds, which included Sasha Rattle, son of conductor Sir Simon, on clarinet.
The 2021 Festival programme also brought a visit by the Chineke! Orchestra itself, although it was a very small version of it, with only double the number of players seen in the ensemble. The concert it played, under conductor William Eddins, who has a longer association with EIF, was still something of an occasion. Both works were premieres – one brand new and the other, I think, for Scotland and by Scot Judith Weir – and the composers were in the audience to acknowledge the applause.
Ayanna Witter-Johnson’s Blush, commissioned by Chineke! to accompany Weir’s woman.life.song, might almost have been marking the recent 50th anniversary of the score to the film Shaft. There were not only hints of movie score about it, but also the flavour of orchestration of the early 1970s jazz orchestras who played them. The composer made full use of a three-piece Latin rhythm section and the ensemble’s flautist had most of the lead lines.
The group expanded only slightly for the song-cycle Jessye Norman commissioned from Weir and writers Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison and Clarissa Pinkola Estes. It is not unfair to acknowledge that mezzo Andrea Baker does not have the magisterial presence of Norman, and the shifts of tone and style over the sequence make considerable demands.
Angelou’s thoughts On Youth and On Maturity frame the work and the finest poetry comes in the middle, from Toni Morrison, and is set to the most distinctive of Weir’s music. Pinkola Estes supplies the early light relief with Breasts!, the words of an “innocent wild-child” anxious to grow, set to something akin to a show-tune, with jazzy acoustic guitar, and then the later devotional texts on motherhood, its vexations rather than consolations, and the pain of losing the one who brought you into the world.
There are no passengers onstage with Weir’s score, which constantly surprises, and Baker has a lot of power at her disposal even if her singing sometimes lacked the nuance the work demands. The slightly random points at which the audience chose to clap also suggested the overall shape of the work was less apparent than it might have been. For all that, I’d still be keen to hear it again.
If it seemed surprising that the Festival was still advertising tickets for sale for Nicola Benedetti’s solo turn at this year’s event on the day before the performances, then that was possibly because it was not what I had expected. It may be my mistake, but I had assumed that “The Story of the Violin” would be Nicky in her education persona with a family show about the history of her instrument and its pivotal place in the development of music. Instead, and not in any way second-best, the title masked a recital of solo repertoire, virtuosic stuff that spanned 250 years of composition.
It was, in fact, exactly the sort of thing a festival’s “artist in residence” might be expected to perform, between her concerts of early Italian repertoire and music by anniversary year composer Igor Stravinsky. There was no script and very little narrative, and, as she admitted at the start, the real “story of the violin” was a much bigger and longer one than she could attempt to tell in an hour.
It was, nonetheless, A Story of the Violin, illustrated with examples of how far four composers have pushed the instrument and the skills of players. Benedetti was hardly idle during lockdown, but it is not fanciful to imagine that she spent some of her time at home honing these demanding solo pieces, and they did have a story to tell.
She began with a Passacaglia from Biber’s Rosary Sonatas, which Rachel Podger memorably performed complete in St Cecilia’s Hall at the last live Edinburgh Festival in 2019, juggling a selection of instruments in different tunings. Virtuoso playing notwithstanding, and sensibly in standard tuning, it was really just a warm-up for the epic Bach Chaconne, from the Second Partita, that followed. It is one of the pinnacles of the violin repertoire, but Benedetti did not treat it as in any way a technical demonstration, being just as concerned with communicating the design of the whole piece.
There was a music stand on stage, but the violinist consulted it very sparingly during her recital, and not at all during the 20 minutes or so of the Bach. This was a programme that has to be memorised and in the fingers to be performed at all – reading the music is not really an option.
That is just as true of the Paganini that followed, the first and last of his 24 Caprices, the final one the most re-used (and sometimes abused) works in the whole history of music. Its violinist composer may indeed have been the “trickster and dramatist” Benedetti described, but she was concerned to let us hear this tune in its original authentic form, not as a mere party-piece. And if Niccolo Paganini really did invent the “Good Evening, Friends” musical sign-off at the start of the 19thcentury, I am not sure I’d appreciated that before.
Concluding with the solo Sonata No 5 in G by Eugene Ysaye from a further century on, and about 100 years ago, was to demonstrate how the techniques Paganini pioneered were put to the service of a new sound world that we are exploring yet. It also showed that the Belgian invented the “unsquare dance” a long time before Dave Brubeck took five.
Argentinian cellist Sol Gabetta is something of a favourite in Edinburgh, having wowed Festival audiences in chamber music and orchestral settings and appeared in the Usher Hall’s international orchestral seasons. This was probably her first time in a tent in the capital though.
She was also in familiar company with RSNO principal guest conductor Elim Chan, as the pair have worked together at Chan’s Antwerp Symphony Orchestra – and with the Cello Concerto No 1 of Saint-Saens. Like Steven Isserlis, she has championed the Frenchman’s work, and here – and not for the first time – it did seem baffling that the piece is less often heard than those of Elgar and Dvorak. It is a flowing delight of a work with some sparkling fast-fingered passages for the soloist to demonstrate her virtuosity and beautiful tone. Only on the opening page did the tricky sound issues in this venue leave her temporarily swamped by what was a small RSNO.
Chan’s programme opened with a work by the current hippest name in US composition, Caroline Shaw, the 39-year-old Pulitzer Prize winner from North Carolina whose contact book includes collaboration with Kanye West. There was not a lot of hip-hop in her Entr’acte, a piece for strings that toys playfully with neo-classicism, references Haydn, and teeters teasingly on the edge of losing its way before culminating in a solo for the RSNO’s guest first cello.
Perhaps that looking to the work of earlier composers was intended to be echoed in Beethoven’s Symphony No 1, a work that period bands and chamber orchestras speed through as his tribute to his predecessors. In Chan’s hands, however, it was more a statement of intent for what was to come. It was a point at times too deliberately, even ponderously, made in her reading, but not without its rewards. The arc that the conductor drew from the work’s distinctive opening bars to the beginning of the finale could not have been clearer, although she did seem to be holding the orchestra on a tight rein until the dynamic pace of that closing movement.
Who knows what caused Nicola Benedetti to fight back the tears as she introduced the first of the two repeat Saturday shows that opened her Edinburgh International Festival residency this week. It was certainly out of character. Benedetti is known for her confident, commanding stage presence. She seemed lost for words before proclaiming: “I don’t know what’s come over me.” Best get on with the music, advised a voice from the audience. She did, and the atmosphere settled.
This was Scotland’s first sighting of the Ayrshire violinist’s Benedetti Baroque Orchestra, which recently released a new disc on Decca and has subsequently been performing its mostly-Vivaldi programme south of the border. The orchestra, specialists in the period instrument field, are few in number – a mere dozen including its eponymous star – with some recognisable Baroque veterans among its ranks. So Benedetti, as “frontman”, had potentially solid back-up.
From the outset – Geminiani’s Concerto Grosso in D minor (its moniker “La Folia” crediting the Corelli Sonata it is based on) made for a lusty opener – the stylistic ambition of this group was self-evident. It’s about the heart and soul of the Italian Baroque. For Benedetti – whose mother, she informed us, was from the same region that reared Vivaldi – that’s “about the people”. There was certainly a feisty humanity informing the animated performances that variously laughed, cried, danced, took risks.
Three successive Vivaldi concertos followed the Geminiani: the D major Concerto, RV211, ablaze with Baroque laissez-faire even in its central lilting siciliano-styled Largo; the B minor, RV386, more richly emotive but still with a sunny countenance; and one of the famous Four Seasons, appropriately “Summer” – apparently requested by the Festival – to take the programme to its official conclusion.
In each of these Benedetti’s personality was the driving factor, visually balletic, rhythmically electrifying and full of idiosyncratic surprises, from the provocatively sensuous bending of phrases to improvised cadences that defied expectation, and much to the thrill of the unsuspecting listener. That her errant hairband chose to adopt a life of its own, leading to another impromptu announcement, merely added to the spontaneity.
That said, a niggling discomfort pervaded this programme. Benedetti, herself, suffered moments of technical insecurity, with iffy upper intonation in key exposed passages, and a tendency, now and again, to lose firm focus in her tone. Her orchestra, super-efficient and ever-watchful of its director, seemed mostly content to play a back-seat role when the opportunity was there to throw in its own characterful surprises, more amorphous than distinctive. That seemed a missed opportunity.
Suddenly, though, all cylinders fired in the expected encore, the gorgeous Largo-Andante from Tartini’s A major Violin Concerto. Not in an all-guns-blazing way, of course, for this is one of those hushed, sun-baked Italian Baroque slow movements that flow with instinctive purpose and floating inevitability. Benedetti, wholly at ease with its natural melodic thread and inspiring melting support from her colleagues, now seemed perfectly at home. Ken Walton
With consummate timing, pianist Malcolm Martineau assembled his pals – singers Elizabeth Watts and Roderick Williams, violinist Sijie Chen and cellist Ursula Smith – to mark Sir Walter Scott’s 250th on the eve of the great writer’s actual birthday. More immediate matters of synchronisation then presented further challenges.
This was a Queen’s Hall concert par excellence, regrettably not at the Queen’s Hall, but in the Festival’s temporary “polytunnel” in the courtyard of the oldest part of the University of Edinburgh half a mile down the road. Needs must, and an impressive response to pandemic restrictions, but the habitual broad smile of baritone Williams disguised the fact that his accompanist was clearly struggling to hear the voices, at least at the start of the recital. For someone as sensitive and attuned to nuances of vocal delivery as Martineau this must have been excruciatingly frustrating.
From an audience point of view, however, the uncertainty of tempo at the start of the programme was swiftly overcome, and easily ignored. There was so much of fascination in this programme, alongside gloriously familiar music given an unforgettable performance.
That piece was Schubert’s Ave Maria, surely as well-ridden an old war-horse as there is in the repertoire, and one where the piano accompaniment is as firmly lodged in the mind as the melody. No matter what set up of microphones and monitors Watts and Martineau were having to cope with, their rendition of the song was superb, the soprano in heart-stoppingly glorious form and the pianist immaculately responsive to her phrasing.
It is an ill-divided world, and Watts had the best of this inventive programme, with Williams’ solos almost punctuation between her finest moments, an impression not contradicted by the fact that he, unlike her, was using a score. In the Schubert settings from The Lady of the Lake, the character of Ellen has the best songs, and Watts had already let us hear Mendelssohn’s less grand setting of the prayer to the Virgin.
Of the less well-known songs, it was the baritone who was called upon to demonstrate facility in a range of languages in songs by Glinka and Meyerbeer, the latter’s La pauvre Louise neatly juxtaposed with Watts singing Parry’s Proud Maisie.
There are no intervals during this year’s concerts, but the pair ended what would have been each half of a Queen’s Hall recital with a duet, and the strings took part in the opening Haydn and closing Beethoven sequence. The Monks of Bangor’s March is probably the meatiest of Beethoven’s Scott settings, which few would argue are essential elements of his canon.
Williams had the last word, however, with what he described as a “musical bon-bon” that he had composed as an encore by the whole ensemble. Like a rediscovered parlour song, it captured, precisely, the ambivalence of the contemporary reader – and student – to Sir Walter’s works. Reverence is always better for being tempered, even on a 250th birthday.
A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM Edinburgh Academy Junior School
“Hey ho, the wind and the rain”. Shakespeare might have welcomed a downpour during Twelfth Night, but for A Midsummer Night’s Dream he’s more likely to have wished for something comparable to a summer’s day. That wasn’t to be on Wednesday, as the earlier of two performances by the RSNO of Mendelssohn’s incidental music to the latter play played almost entirely in an accompanying rainstorm.
That’s the risk this Festival, where concerts are effectively under canvas therefore exposed to the niceties of the Scottish weather. In the end, it dampened neither the performance, which flowed with seamless momentum, nor our own enjoyment of it. If anything, RSNO music director Thomas Søndergård’s flexible insight opened our eyes fully to the utter exuberance of Mendelssohn’s musical imagination and sophistication.
This wasn’t just about the music, of course, though with the RSNO in such receptive form there was no escaping the central role it played, striking up the anticipatory joys of the magical Overture before unfolding a musical narrative that shifted effortlessly between autonomous evocation and supportive underscore. Little risk of the well-worn Wedding March sounding hackneyed. It was as it should be: bright, breezy and fresh as a daisy.
The Nocturne glowed, the Dance of Clowns frolicked, the Scherzo captured the essential sparkle. And in those brief moments where Mendelssohn calls for singers, soloists Rowan Pierce and Kathryn Rudge were a sepulchral delight, backed by selected offstage voices from the Edinburgh Festival Chorus.
But key to the success was actor Dame Harriet Walter, whose narration was a masterclass in theatrical poise, a compelling stylishness that required no histrionics, just force of personality and instinct for perfect timing. She and Søndergård worked in perfect harmony. The weather may have had mischief in mind, but mischief has its part to play in A Midsummer Nights Dream. Like Puck it comes in unexpected guises. Ken Walton
This year’s Festival music programme, given it’s a semi-outdoor experience, is as much a challenge to the listener as to the performer. So yes, in Wednesday’s lunchtime recital, pianist Steven Osborne no doubt had to acclimatise his own thoughts and actions to a performance space – the gazebo-style tent in Old College Quad – infiltrated by the everyday sounds of midday traffic and screeching birds. But equally, as an audience, we had to assimilate such conflicting stimuli and take what we could from the resulting melange.
I found it strangely invigorating, the urban soundscape adding a risky unpredictability to the usual hemmed-in security of the concert arena. That’s not to say Osborne’s bold programming was ever intended to be an easy, comforting listen. That is never his style. And how could it be, with Schubert and late Beethoven sandwiching the unconventional experimentalism of American composer George Crumb and the frenetic ecstasy of Tippett’s Second Piano Sonata?
Nor did he present these as a serving up of disparate courses. There was overriding structural continuity that allowed one work to play off the other: sometimes made easy for us, as in the uninterrupted shift from Schubert’s plain-speaking Impromptu in F minor, D935 No 1, to the elusive resonance (conveniently opening on a whispered note F) of Crumb’s 1984 Processional, rather like an instant transportation from the real world to the Twilight Zone; at other times through subliminal connections, as in the rhetorical turmoil common to both the Tippett and opening movement of Beethoven’s ultimately tamed Sonata No 32 in C minor.
Osborne’s delivery was one of tempered intensity, which allowed Schubert’s tunefulness to breathe easy within the confines of a taut interpretational overview, and graced Crumb’s growing agitations with a polarity that made haunting sense of its reflective sound world. It was almost impossible to hear the final hushed notes over the gentle circling breeze, but the gestures alone bore an imagined significance.
Tippett’s music has been both friend and foe to Osborne, but these days he is master of its challenges. There is something slightly unhinged about the Piano Sonata No 2, a surface randomness in the feverish juxtaposition of its jousting ideas, which Osborne tamed without losing its essential clarity. Nor did he attempt to make anything more of the curiously exasperated ending than it is what it is – something of an enigma.
Few can beat Osborne when it comes to Beethoven, which he proved yet again in the composer’s final sonata. At the heart of the opening movement, the powerhouse fugue thundered its confident message, answered sublimely in the final Arietta with its all-encompassing variations, during which a nearby butterfly ceased its fluttering and rested motionlessly on the floor as if enthralled. Art and nature as one. Ken Walton
Pianist Malcolm Martineau talks to Keith Bruce ahead of his two Edinburgh International Festival appearances.
In an Edinburgh Festival that has, of necessity, looked to local talent to provide much of the programme, there is really only one home-grown hero whose presence is expected and welcomed every year and it is neither St Mary’s Music School star pianist Steven Osborne nor EIF 2021’s artist-in-residence, the undeniably West Coast Nicola Benedetti.
No, the musician without whom no EIF programme is complete is pianist and accompanist to the world’s finest singers, Malcolm Martineau. Edinburgh’s Martineau is a resident of south-east London, but he maintains an apartment in the Scottish capital, recently renovated and home to two nine-foot Steinways and a Bach Gesellschaft (the composer’s complete works as published by the Bach Society) that the pianist was left by his grandfather.
“I am hoping to rent it to someone who wouldn’t mind all that. I may live in London but Edinburgh will always be my home – coming in to Waverley Station, my heart just tings!”
At the age of 13, Martineau was a programme-seller in the Usher Hall during the Festival, and remembers concerts conducted by Guilini and Bernstein. Last year’s cancelled Festival was to have included a 60th birthday celebration programme for him with back-to-back Queen’s Hall recitals with mezzo Susan Graham and then a group of virtuoso instrumental friends.
“I love the Queen’s Hall,” he says. “I know the seats are not great, but it is the perfect venue for chamber music and for song. The audience is near enough that they can see the singer’s eyes and be part of the event.”
If he is dismayed that his anniversary passed unmarked, he is not admitting it. “As an accompanist, of course, I can go on forever,” he says, and there, in any case, are two Martineau events this year, relocated down the road to the temporary venue in the Old College Quad.
On Saturday August 14, the completely different group of musical friends, including soprano Elizabeth Watts and baritone Roderick Williams, join Martineau to mark a different anniversary, part of the Walter Scott 250 celebrations. The pianist has created a programme of music based on texts by Scott, composed by Haydn, Schubert, Beethoven and Sibelius, and with two new songs written by Williams.
Then on August 27 he plays for Fatma Said, an Egyptian soprano on whose debut album he appears and with whom he had recently performed in Barcelona when we spoke. “That’s a very clever CD of Arabic music, from Scheherazade to Arabic pop,” he says. The programme for Edinburgh runs from Mozart to Ravel and de Falla.
Another young singer whose intelligent programming the pianist is eager to praise is contralto Jess Dandy, familiar to music-lovers from her work with Edinburgh’s Dunedin Consort and the singer whose Perth Concert Hall recital at the end of May was Scotland’s first post-lockdown event.
“That was the first thing I’d done for an audience. Jess has an extraordinary instrument, she’s a real contralto. I’ve known her for a long time but that was the first time we’ve done a recital together. She was a total joy to work with and that very clever programme was all of her making. She will corner the market for all that contralto stuff that nobody else can sing.”
Like many musicians, Martineau found “positives and negatives” in the experience of lockdown, and he concedes that he was luckier than many, being married to a hospital pharmacist whose income was still coming into the house.
“It gave me time to practise a lot and reaffirm how much I love what I do. I discovered lots of new technical things, even at my grand old age. That was very exciting. Every day I couldn’t wait to get to the piano, which was lovely and slightly surprised me.
“I practised lots of songs but also lots of solo repertoire that I’ll probably never play, and that was very satisfying. I learned a Beethoven Piano Concerto that I had never learned when I was a youngster, and lots of other things. I geeked a bit on the internet with piano technique things, and there was time for all that.”
The pianist also managed to do some recording during the pandemic, although even that was also curtailed. He has many recording projects underway, with his most recent release the fourth and final volume of the complete songs of Gabriel Faure. His French song series for Signum Classics has involved a huge list of singers and he was since recorded those of Duparc “and we’re halfway through Ravel.” For Linn he is working on a complete Brahms set, following the composer’s own opus numbers, with two singers on each CD – a project that also involves Scots mezzo Karen Cargill.
Alongside fellow Scot Iain Burnside, Martineau’s work in the studio is where accompanists are adding fascinating surveys of music to the catalogue.
“The pianist that started these was Graham Johnson and that huge Schubert series he did for Hyperion. He was able to invite all those different singers to do a volume each.
“Like so many things in my profession, it started with Graham. He started a new conception of programming and made it all a little bit more relaxed, not in the standard and the scholarship, but in a different era from one that put the singers on a pedestal.
“There is a perception that French songs all sound the same and I wanted to use a number of singers in order to show the variety in each of these composers, and also the difference between each of these composers. Faure wrote from 1861 to 1921 so his style changed massively in that period, and I think the variety of the singers suits the variety of the music, and the setting of the poetry.
“And also I wanted to make music with all my friends. That’s the way I function best.
“The way singers perform now is different. They sing as if they are telling you a story at a dinner party. It’s more personal and intimate. In conservatoires there is much more awareness of song, and how healthy singing songs is for the voices of young singers. They might in ten years be singing Verdi, but they shouldn’t necessarily be singing Verdi now.”
Although he does so in the most gentle terms, there is no denying the passion Martineau brings to the teaching side of his practice, at least the equal of his performance personality.
“I’ve always loved working with young singers because I love seeing their first response to things that I’ve played for 25 years. I learn as much from them as they do from me.
“It is wonderful that singers now are not as opera-centric as they were 20 years ago. Of course opera will dominate their lives but singing songs, just two people, is great fun, and a completely different world. When opera works it is amazing, but there are so many variables within a production. With two people it is much more likely that you will get something that is immediately satisfying.
“Young singers need to learn an awareness of text and the ability to tell a story and trust their own instincts. I am totally allergic to the question ‘What’s usually done here?’ I don’t care! Just read what’s in the music and work out what you would like to do with it, and I will hopefully enable you to do that.
“And that is just as true for accompanists as for singers. When I am teaching I don’t want to hear clones of me – one of me is plenty!”
Malcolm Martineau and Friends play at Old College Quad on Saturday August 14 at noon and 2.30pm. Fatma Said and Malcolm Martineau are at the same venue, at the same times, on August 27.