Wednesday, 19 August 2009

Salonen and the Philharmonia open my Edinburgh International Festival

The Edinburgh International Festival started last Friday, of course, but for various reasons, this concert from the Philharmonia is the first thing I've been able to get to.

But before I get started on the music, something much more important: the state of the Usher Hall. Arguably the best sounding concert hall of its size in the UK, it has lain silent for most of the last two years and been the subject of much conversation amongst Edinburgh concert goers. Last summer it poked its head above the parapet for the Festival but resembled a building site more than anything else. When I met Donald Runnicles himself back in April and showed him a few snaps, he was as unconvinced as most other people that it would be ready in time for this year. And, indeed, it isn't: the new glass wing is still firmly blocked off. Ascending the rather dusty steps to the upper circle, things looked oddly familiar. Then I rounded a corner to find thick green carpets and a creamy/yellowy paint that isn't completely convincing, and a noticeable and reassuring lack of exposed wiring.

There is lots of wood panelling (though the toilets no longer appear to be constructed out of plywood and have been sensibly tiled instead). Much of the wood hides the many air conditioning units that have made a welcome appearance. Having said that, the front of house areas up there appeared even more cramped than before (worrying since it wasn't sold out). In the auditorium there appear to be few changes, though some seats at the far edge of the dress circle have been removed to create what look to be wheelchair spaces. The stage appears to have been improved too. It would, perhaps, have been better to illustrate this with a couple of pictures, but the battery on my iPhone died so I can't. However, I suspect you're not reading this for all that, you want to know about the music.

The Philharmonia are generally a very fine band, and they were certainly on form for Esa-Pekka Salonen. It was my first chance to hear them with their new chief conductor, who didn't overly impress me when he visited the Barbican with the LA Philharmonic. They got off to an incredible start with Bartok's The Miraculous Mandarin: suite, displaying a Cleveland-like precision, and praise on precision doesn't come any higher than that. Yet there was no shortage of tenderness when required and clarinetist Mark van de Wiel provided a fine solo. However, it was in the louder and faster moments that they really took your breath away, especially in the frenzy of the finale. It was marred only by what was either a very strange mobile phone ring tone or some malfunction in the staff walkie-talkie system midway through (but the performance was too fine for this to detract significantly).

This was followed by some comparatively new music, something that I think is one of Jonathan Mills' best innovations since taking over the festival directorship. In this case, Salonen himself was composer as well as conductor for a work that had its UK premiere two years ago at the Proms (indeed, it links to Runnicles as I bought my brother tickets to it in order to game the priority booking system and secure a perfect seat for the Runnicles Gotterdammerung). Finn wasn't overly impressed by the piano concerto and I find myself in a similar position. Certainly Yefim Bronfman, for whom the concerto was written, is very fine pianist. Coincidentally, the last time I heard him was with the Philharmonia and Mackerras, playing Mozart. However, it didn't feel especially remarkably, either lyrically or texturally. It was fairly easy listening though (which made the loud "what was that comment" from one member of the audience, immediately on its completion, a little out of place). It became more compelling as it went on, though running at around forty minutes it was fairly long and it did feel as though some slightly more ruthless editing would have helped it a lot. It also wasn't helped by Salonen's programme note either, which intricately described the three movements, failing to note that they were played without break. By the time this dawned on me, I had lost my place in the notes as a result and was unable to pick out, for example, the section devoted to science fiction writer Stanislaw Lem.

After the interval came Debussy's Prelude a l'apres-midi d'un faune. I'm no fan of the composer and never make much effort to seek out his music, yet this was still instantly familiar. Certainly the Philharmonia played it sublimely, particularly the flute solo by Kenneth Smith. However, Debussy is still in no danger of getting anywhere remotely near my desert island playlist.

The finale was Janacek's glorious Sinfonietta. Again, the last time I heard this work the Philharmonia were on duty. Unfortunately for Salonen, Charles Mackerras was conducting that concert, shortly after the Festival Hall reopened, and those are gargantuan shoes to fill. The reading was beautifully textured, and it was wonderful to have that massive and magnificent sounding array of brass through the organ gallery, yet I didn't get the sense he'd thought about their placement as carefully as Runnicles would have or as Volkov did with that 2004 Bluebeard's Castle; there was some superb string playing too. While the final few bars were extremely impressive something was missing; again and again I found myself wanting more bite, more of the kind of reading that Mackerras would have given. Only in the climax in the middle of the central slow movement did Salonen really set my spine tingling. It is perhaps unsurprising that this movement overall responded best his less dramatic appraoch. I seemed to be in a minority though.

Regardless of Salonen's interpretations, or my taste for some of the compositions, it is impossible to fault the orchestra - they were a joy to listen to, what a pity we only have them for one evening.

It was better sold than might have been expected, given new music was on the programme, though the Edinburgh audience was at its chatty worst. Fortunately we were spared the jet that is flying over the tattoo every night at 9pm, as we emerged the reason became clear: it had started to pour with rain.

1 comment:

  1. You mention the absence of the low flying aircraft. It beggars belief that there is so little co-operation between the various strands of the Festival in Edinburgh that the main music venue for the International Festival can be over-flown at 9.00 each evening. Having experienced it, I can assure you that the resultant noise is very audible in the Usher Hall.

    The hall itself is still a building site and the staff, although plentiful, seem woefully under-trained.

    At Sunday's RSNO concert the Festival Society provided only 350 printed programmes for an audience of about 1500 people listening to contemporary music. There is more to running a festival than booking artists.

    Frankly, I wish J Mills would return to obscurity in Australia.
    Edinburgh and Scotland deserve better.

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