Tuesday 3 April 2007

Festival 2005, Part I

As promised, the first in a series of posts from the 2005 Festival. Originally posted at the Naim forum, and slightly revised and expanded. Actually, reading back over these makes me realise how much better a writer and reviewer of things I am now, so I apologise in advance for the quality. I have italicised those bits I've added.

Things started off the other Sunday (the 14th August) with a truly excellent performance of the Verdi requiem (which will be broadcast on Radio 3 in September, the 11th, I think). It featured the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra conducted wonderfully by Donald Runnicles. Sadly the Festival Chorus continue to be very short staffed in the male department, which was the performance's only real drawback. Violeta Urmana was outstanding among a strong quartet of soloists. This performance was the first time I feel in love with the work (having previously only known it from Abbado's Berlin recording). Many of the hallmarks of a great Runnicles performance were present, not least his genius for orchestral placement - the balance of the off-stage trumpets was just right. The festival chorus may be imperfect, but the effect at the end, as they faded away so tantalisingly was pure magic.

Monday was even better. A visit from Barenboim's West-Eastern Divan Orchestra (for those of you who don't know, a youth orchestra composed of Israeli, Palestinian, Syrian and Egyptian kids), something that would be worth supporting regardless of the musical merit. Fortunately, they play very well indeed. True, there are youth orchestras with more polish (this is not the Gustav Mahler youth orchestra, they come next Friday), but none that play quite so much energy and enthusiasm. The highlight of the programme was a highly charged reading of the Beethoven 5th Symphony. Barenboim then gave an interesting speech to the effect that while the orchestra obviously couldn’t bring peace, it could help understanding, hopefully. They then played the prelude to Wagner’s Tristan (apparently Israeli kids in the orchestra had asked him if they could play some Wagner). They were at the proms the day before (doing Mahler 1) and that concert repeats on Radio 3 on Friday afternoon. Well worth watching if they come to a concert hall near you.

Tuesday saw a slightly less star studded than expected Clemenzo di Tito. Bostridge had pulled out at the last minute (and, indeed, out of the recording). Still, Reiner Trost stood in creditably well at the last minute. Mackerras conducted the SCO brilliantly and the other singers were excellent. Kozena was good, but I’m not quite sure I see what all the fuss is about. Sir Charles will be doing Fidelio with the SCO in October (and very wonderful it was too - perhaps one day the BBC will see fit to release the recording which also featured the excellent Christine Brewer in the title role), both up here and in London as part of his 80th birthday celebrations. Perhaps the star for me was the lovely Christine Rice as Annio. The same forces had recorded this for DG just a few weeks before, and very fine that recording is too. Indeed, in some regards finer than the concert - the balance of the forces in the hall was not always perfectly kind to Trost, an issue eliminated on the CD.

Wednesday saw a disappointing Mahler 9th with the RSNO (under Jiri Belohlavek, now in charge of the BBCSO), who are definitely Scotland’s 3rd orchestra these days. It suffered from a symptom I identified for the first time in this performance, and one I find plagues many readings I've heard on disc since: in the wrong hands the work feels like an unconnected series of miniatures each lasting just a couple of minutes, which produces a result I find very unengaging. Contrast this with, say, Bernstein's 1970s DVD performance with the Vienna Philharmonic, where the music seems to shift organically from one phase to the next.

However, on Thursday Runnicles returned with the BBC SSO to do a wonderful Mahler 3. A tricky symphony a the best of times, he managed to hold the tension perfectly so the end was not the let down it can be in the wrong hands. The off-stage horn was used to especially good effect in the 3rd movement. That off-stage horn is one of the most magical moments I have ever experienced in the concert hall, and benefits from a little explanation. I was in the dress circle (lucky me) quite a way round, such, if you know the Usher Hall, that I was almost side-on to the orchestra. Not, you might think, ideal, as one needs to sit twisted round in one's seat. Then came the third movement 'What the animals in the forest tell me.' and the doors to the circle had opened, outside them was the horn (not that it was visible). And there was this perfect balance with the horn on my left and the orchestra on my right, I don't mean balance in that they were equal levels, mind, the level was so that you could hear it perfectly but had to strain that little bit. But it remains one of the most sublime things I have ever heard. For once, the acoustics of the foyer there (which can mean you hear the glasses being laid out for the interval), were perfect. I also remember very clearly that the woman I was seated next to was one of the worst fidgets I have experienced. Something that often drives me to distraction, but not that night. Indeed, the others were surprised I had not been more bothered. Sadly my recording system failed that year and I was unable to tape the Radio 3 broadcast. Possibly just as well, as the recording would not have captured quite all the magic, but I do wish this concert would be released. I remember the sorrow of Birgitta Svenden in the fourth movement, the sparkle of the women of the festival chorus and the RSNO junior chorus in the fifth. And, as importantly as anything, Runnicles' mastery of the finale, such that the emotion final bars were far from the anticlimax they can be.

Friday saw the Scottish Chamber Orchestra under Giuliano Garella for Rossini's Adelaide di Borgogna, which I didn't enjoy. But then I'm no huge fan of Rossini, and even at the best of times I'm not convinced how well his operas work in concert. But I was in a minority, Finn, and the others with us, disagreed with me forcefully afterwards.

Well, that's all for now. Part two will bring the Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester, Mackerras in melodrama, the Death of Klinghoffer and more.

Original post published on Thursday 1st September 2005

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