Was Robert Schumann's rarely performed Das Paradies und die Peri really the best choice to open the 2011 Edinburgh International Festival? It is difficult not to wonder whether there exists a more explosive choral blockbuster that ties in with the festival's eastern themes. Indeed, a work that even feels like it deserves the words explosive or blockbuster.
I mention this because it was preceded by Jonathan Mills' customary introductory speech, one that showcased the sheer cultural range, and diversity of performers, that he has assembled for the next three weeks. It must be said, though, that it did rather feel like he was going to read out the entire programme to us, and it would have been a more effective speech had he edited it down a bit.
But back to the music. Personally I am not the greatest fan of Schumann's music and I find that even in better known works such as the symphonies, a conductor has to bring something to it in order that it does not fall flat, whether it be Bernstein's heavy romanticism or Oramo's irrepressible energy. Roger Norrington, on the other hand, brought apathy. On the other hand is perhaps an unfortunate turn of phrase since he often conducted with only one hand, making gestures of the kind that someone might use to indicate they couldn't be bothered. And, in fairness, that's exactly how everyone played and sang.
At this point in a performance that has left me cold, I would normally be able to turn and say that at least the Scottish Chamber Orchestra demonstrated why they are one of our national cultural treasures. They did not. Indeed, there was a scrappiness to the ensemble inconsistent with the orchestra I hear regularly throughout the year. If the work is one of quiet beauty rather than showy pyrotechnics, it needs to be better played than this.
The singing from the Festival Chorus was pretty decent, but again, Norrington didn't bring it together with the ensemble in an effective way. Similar could be said of the soloists - tenor Maximilian Schmitt and bariton Florian Boesch sang well, but they might as well have been reading the telephone directory for all the emotion they brought. Indeed, lack of emotion was frequently a problem, especially towards the end as words such as 'joy' frequently recurred but nobody seemed able to locate any. Susan Gritton started poorly, her voice sounded thin and her diction odd, almost as though she was ill, though she warmed up in later parts.
Doubtless to maximise bar takings, there were two intervals. We partook of a glass of wine in the first. I note this because a little alcohol often enhances a lacklustre performance, yet here things seemed duller and more lifeless in the second part. Here also, ensemble playing was at its scrappiest.
On the strength of this performance the work is deservedly neglected. And yet, as I type this I am listening to Gardiner's recording, which has everything this performance lacked, from drama and emotion to crisp playing. If Mills selected Das Paradies und die Peri on the strength of this, it is perhaps understandable he felt it would make for a good opening.
It was, in short, a disappointing start to the festival, and the poorest opening concert I can remember. Still, on the plus side it can only get better.
As an orchestral player yourself, surely you appreciate that there is more going on between a conductor and orchestra/chorus than can be seen by the audience. From my point of view, his facial expressions, and other subtle body language, conveyed a total engagement with the music - and certainly not the "can't be bothered" approach you describe.
Yes and no.
While there will certainly be many things that are going on that will be directly invisible to the audience, they should still be visibly reflected in the other performers (such as has been the case when I have seen Jansons lay down the baton altogether for a few bars at a time with his Bavarian band). More importantly, it should be audible to the audience. Perhaps this was a performance with everyone on the platform totally engaged but it certainly didn't look or sound that way.
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