Queen’s Hall & Usher Hall, Edinburgh
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?