Regular readers will likely have marked that I have had some fairly critical things to say about aspects of this year's programme. This pair of late night concerts provides an occasion to praise it on a number of levels.
One of the best aspects of Jonathan Mills's tenure as Director has been to broaden the range of music covered by the Festival. While there was much marvellous music during Brian MacMaster's reign it would be fair to say I think that there was a bit of a bias towards the eighteenth and nineteenth century core German repertoire. Two differences under Mills have been especially marked, far more early music and far more contemporary music, including a number of Festival commissions. The latter has been especially bold and admirable, because it is an observable fact in Edinburgh that program a piece of new music in an otherwise safe concert, and audience numbers tend to drop significantly. It was therefore also encouraging that these two late night performances in the Hub were well sold. Both of them also reflected this year's theme of technology and art through their use of electronics.
The two concerts paired twentieth century solo piano music (Kurtag and Messiaen) with pieces combining electronics and piano/percussion, performed by Pierre-Laurent Aimard (piano), Marco Stroppa (electronics) and Samuel Favre (percussion). All the pieces were new to me. While I enjoyed Aimard's performances of the Kurtag and the Messiaen – both well suited to that kind of venue and time, the most interesting part of both recitals were the electronic pieces – Marco Stroppa's Traiettoria and Stockhausen's Kontakte. Contrary to what I had expected in advance I was glad to have heard them. Each seemed to me to be concerned in some way with dialogue between the physical instrument and the electronics, or in the case of Stockhausen the three way between piano, percussion and electronics. Of these I thought the Stockhausen made better use of the resources available. The Stroppa piece seemed to have a more limited electronic palate and was saved more by Aimard's remarkable virtuousity.
The Stockhausen to begin with has greater variety of sound, at least in part because of the wide range of percussion deployed. It is also distinctly theatrical, and worth seeing live if only to watch Aimard switch with impressive skill between percussion and piano, not to mention scurrying round to assist Favre with the gongs. Stockhausen, more than Stroppa, really played the three instruments off against each other with great precision and in an striking variety of ways. However, as with the Stroppa I wasn't convinced that it wholly justified its length. There is a huge climax on the gongs about ten minutes before the end, after which the piece seemed to go back over ground it had already visited (apart from the playful brush strokes on cymbals at the very end). Possibly the intention was to mock form, but for me it didn't wholly work.
But regardless of some doubts about the pieces, this was overall a fabulous pair of concerts and I hope we shall see more of Aimard, contemporary music, and late night performances at the Festival in future.