Seated at the front of the stage, their pianos tessellated together, dressed all in black, the Labèque sisters might as well have been members of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. It was a similar story when they played, such was the unity of their interpretation and the uniformly high standard of playing. With Robin Ticciati at the helm, making his debut at the Edinburgh festival, they provided an astonishing performance of Poulenc's concerto for two pianos. The two soloists had both precision and punch, yet thankfully not the sort that comes simply from thumping the keyboard; there was delicacy on display too. Beneath them Ticciati and the orchestra provided well judged and dramatic accompaniment. Sandwiched between the fireworks of the outer movements, it was perhaps the spellbinding slow movement that was most impressive. Either way, it seems a crying shame that the BBC were not there to record it for broadcast.
They had begun the programme with Rebel's Les Elemens. The opening movement, with a modern feel that belied its 18th century origins, started as Ticciati was still walking to the podium. A series of long, deep and dramatic shuddering chords marked the start of each section. In short it was compelling listening. Interestingly, it was composed separately from the main ballet and added later. I'd rather it had stayed separate as the rest seemed pretty unremarkable. They played it nicely enough but it was a bit bland and didn't do much for me. The birdsong effects in the third movement were especially twee and not a patch on what Messiaen would achieve two centuries later.
After the interval came the world premier of Kevin Volans' Symphony: Daar Kom die Alibama. Commissioning of new music is an innovation of Jonathan Mills' tenure as festival director that I'm very glad of and this proved an interesting listen, if not entirely satisfying. It was hardly a symphony, more a series of miniatures, each playing with various textures. A shimmering feel ran through them, calling to mind the sea effectively. In his programme note, Vorlans admits he "allowed myself a certain amount of repetition." Try a lot: each section being by and large extremely repetitive. This is not a bad thing in and of itself, as various of the modern pieces at this year's festival have shown. And, certainly, many of the sections were wonderful to listen, beautiful and compelling textures, superbly played. The finest moments came in the few minutes either side of a sublimely delicate section for the winds. The problem was more that there didn't seem any particular rhyme or reason why one section followed another and not the other way round; it didn't really seem to go anywhere or build to anything. It also slightly overstayed its welcome and had the feeling that some tighter editing would have served it well.
They finished up with Bizet's Symphony in C. This was fairly fun and bounced along nicely, with some crisp playing from the orchestra. But it isn't the greatest of pieces (certainly it wouldn't make the short-list for my desert island, though I adore those low driving chords in the third movement) and I can't help thinking that it didn't come close to matching the thrills and magic of the Poulenc.