Usher Hall, Edinburgh
Conductor Karina Canellakis has some big opera projects on both sides of the Atlantic in the coming season, with Janacek’s Makropoulos Case, The Damnation of Faust by Berlioz and Wagner’s Siegfried in the Netherlands where she is based, and Der Rosenkavalier by Richard Strauss at Santa Fe Opera. She may have begun musical life as a violinist, but her conducting career shows an affinity with singers.
That was very evident at the Closing Concert of this year’s Edinburgh Festival, when she was clearly enjoying the performance of the Edinburgh Festival Chorus in the work that brought this year’s classical music programme to a close, Rachmaninov’s The Bells.
It was also the work that concluded the tenure of Aidan Oliver as Chorus Director, as he moves to Glyndebourne and is succeeded by James Grossmith. The Royal Conservatoire of Scotland conducting graduate inherits a choir on very fine form indeed, wonderfully crisp in their opening utterances in the work’s “Sleigh Bells” start and then in lock-step with the orchestra for the climactic third movement.
The soloists – tenor David Butt Philip and then soprano Olga Kulchynska – have relatively smaller roles until the funereal finale when the chorus partners the baritone, Alexander Vinogradov.
If the symphonic arc of The Bells covers nothing less than human existence from cradle to grave, the two works of the first half were more basic in their concerns. The strings of the BBC Scottish gave Canellakis their best work as she shaped the distinctive sound of Wagner’s Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde. This trailer for his opera features the famous Tristan chord, but after hanging in the air for much of the piece, it reached a glorious climax at the end.
For the work in between, Scriabin’s Le Poeme de L’Extase, extra horns and trumpets, harps, celesta, organ and even, handily, bells were added. The composer sometimes referred to this 17-minute tone poem as a symphony, but it really has more in common with the Wagner or modernist works to come in the 20th century.
For all Scriabin’s mystical leanings, the wave upon wave of instrumental climaxes and cascading orchestration in the music seemed to suggest activity rather more physical than cerebral. Canellakis and the SSO paced the work beautifully to its orgasmic last bars.