The Lloyds TSB Scotland concerts have used an innovative new format at the Edinburgh Festival this year. In place of the usual single concert, we have three individual programmes separated by two longer-than-normal intervals.
This not only provides more music per evening, but also the opportunity to directly compare three orchestras and three conductors, or the equivalent. 30 a night could be cheap or expensive, depending on your budget, but with the obvious quality that ran through Wednesday’s concert, this mattered less and less.
The concert began with Charles Mackerras conducting Beethoven’s First Symphony. For some reason, this conductor’s Beethoven cycle this Festival has been performed in the wrong order, hence the first symphony appears in the penultimate concert. Perhaps this has been to present each composition on its own terms, not as part of a collective. For this same reason, it could also seem to be a serious error of judgement. We miss out on the development of Beethoven’s compositional techniques and style through the cycle.
Then again, with Mackerras conducting like he did on Wednesday, it seemed a privilege just to hear the performance. The early string pizzicati of the first movement may have been shaky, but once that was corrected, it was difficult to imagine a more involving rendition of the symphony. While some have emphasised the humour in the work turning it into almost a burlesque of Haydn Mackerras transformed it into a violent, turbulent nightmare. His conducting was always controlled, yet an edge of insanity ran beneath the surface of even the most joyful bar of music, propelled to breaking point in the searing climaxes.
The Scottish Chamber Orchestra played with vigour. The first violins, led by Christopher George, phrased with huge theatrical intensity, as did the quartet of cellists. The fugal entries at the start of the second movement were bizarrely well judged. Woodwind (notably clarinets and flutes) were lyrical at times, piercing at others. The horns’ warmth impressed throughout. And the timpani playing was a drama in itself. At the symphony’s heart, Mackerras’s skilful pairing of humour and violence unearthed new treasures at every turn. It would not be an overstatement to say that the work has never sounded more alert.
The problem with this set-up of concerts is that, with such an extraordinary opening performance, where can one go? The answer is, of course, that it would be easy to return crashing back to Earth. Luckily, this did not happen, but during the remaining two performances, the Beethoven lingered in the mind.
A much lager audience turned up for the Northern Sinfonia‘s performance of three of Bach’s Brandenburg concerti, led by Thomas Zehetmair. Numbers Three, Five and Six were also performed in the wrong order, but perhaps six could seem a let-down after the extraordinary virtuosity of its predecessor, so this is understandable. Indeed, Number Six was put first, and its gorgeously warm toned combination of violas and cellos (or violas da gamba, as was the case here) provided an enjoyable if untroubling start to the concert. This trend was continued. Number Three suffered with one violinist squeaking often and losing pitch on one occasion. Number Five boasted excellent flute playing from Juliette Bausor but was let down by harpsichordist Robert Hall, who could have done with another glance through the score before his cadenza. The ensemble played thoughtfully throughout.
Then at 9.30pm, Herbert Blomstedt conducted the Philharmonia Orchestra in Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony. On the positive side, the orchestra was stunning, producing a raw and roaring brass ring to the climaxes and allowing the woodwind solo passages to shine in contemplation (I am tempted to name every flautist for their clarity of tone). Less good was Blomstedt’s reading, which lacked a sense of the overall structure. His fluid approach to tempo resulted in a number of passages dragging, notably in the normally exhilarating Scherzo.
So all three ensembles impressed, barring the odd criticism already mentioned. Both orchestras were on top form, while the Northern Sinfonia relished Bach’s vigorous contrapuntal writing. And at only 30 a time, these evenings out seem exceptionally good value.