My first concert at this year's EIF was the latest of the impressive array of visiting orchestras Jonathan Mills has engaged for his fourth festival, although in rather more conventional fare than much of the programme. Perhaps unsurprisingly this proved a cue for the conservative Edinburgh audience to pack the Usher Hall. The performance was certainly well worth hearing, but not overall a complete triumph.
Osmo Vanska and his orchestra began with a piece by Barber, Music for a Scene from Shelley, with which I was not familiar. Starting as it soon proved they meant to go on, the orchestra produced some beautiful sounds, particularly from the brass section, and showed a wonderful command of the carefully constructed climax. The piece itself is nothing special, rather sub Richard Strauss and one can see why it isn't much performed.
Far more frequently heard is the Elgar Cello Concerto which followed, although this is the first time I have heard it performed live. The soloist, not previously known to me, was Alisa Weilerstein, recipient of a number of awards and currently Artist in Residence at the Cleveland Institute of Music. Like the Barber, although for different reasons, this was not a wholly satisfying performance. Weilerstein was capable of producing some lovely sounds, but she didn't have enough forceful attack where it's needed to sufficiently compete with the orchestra and didn't quite seem to have an overall grasp of the piece, which particularly in the slow movement rather ground to a halt. Discussing it afterwards with my companion we agreed that there also seemed to be something of a conflict of interpretations going on between Weilerstein, who wanted to revel in her solos (there was a bit too much dramatic hair tossing for my taste, not matched by the quality of the interpretation) and Vanska who was plainly trying but not managing to move things along. The applause nevertheless was warm.
After the interval came Beethoven's 7th Symphony, which was the main reason I booked the my ticket. The Seventh is my favourite of Beethoven's symphonies, and the Minnesotans and Vanska had to do battle with my vivid recollection of Mackerras and the SCO's glorious performance as part of the 2006 cycle. The key point, for me, about this symphony is that you really have to go at breakneck edge of your seat speed in the finale. My father asked me after hearing Mahler's Resurrection Symphony for the first time whether I had been carried over the edge, and I think the same needs to happen with Beethoven 7. The first two movements augered well. The opening movement had a sense of momentum and fun, with a continuing fine quality of playing from all sections of the band, and the same exciting dynamic contrasts as were heard in the Barber and Elgar. The slow movement, like parts of the Elgar, had in the quality of the playing something marvellously wistful and haunting, which reminded me of the LA Symphony's visit a few years ago with Salonen. But in the third movement things started to slip. I began to feel that we had heard the same dynamic effect from quiet to loud a few too many times without much alteration – given the repeats in the Scherzo this only became more of a problem as it went on. For the Finale things picked up. Vanska certainly can't be accused of not going fast enough, and the orchestra produced a wonderful sound. The sense of momentum which got a bit lost in the Scherzo was recovered. And yet, I was not quite carried over the edge (although many in the hall clearly were). Part of this was down to repetition of effect – the playing was consistently impressive but the dynamic effects remained very similar throughout the symphony and consequently began to lose impact just where it was most required. I also felt that somehow the ensemble needed just that little bit greater punch in the last movement – you need a degree of blast in that final breakneck section that they just couldn't quite rise to. My companion suggested it was to do with the ratio between strings and brass, which I am not equipped to comment on.
My overall verdict – I'm very glad to have had the opportunity of hearing the Minnesotans who are certainly a very fine band, but Weilerstein could do to be a little bit less indulgent, and their Beethoven needs a little more punch. Mackerras in 2006 remains an unforgettable benchmark.