In a sensible change, the launch of this year's Edinburgh International Festival programme was slightly less frantic than is traditionally the case. In past years, booking has opened on the day of the launch, but this year we had fully 24 hours to digest the programme first. This was just as well as it featured some tough choices, though for me at least somewhat front loaded with the most clashes at the start. I've already offered my first impressions, but since public booking opens today, here, a little later than planned, are my fuller thoughts on the music programme. (My brother looks at theatre and opera here.)
The task of kicking off the festival is in the hands of honorary president Valery Gergiev, though not as one might expect with either of his regular partners, the London Symphony Orchestra or the Mariinsky. Instead he takes up the baton (or more likely the toothpick, as is his preference) with the RSNO for Prokofiev's 3rd piano concerto and Alexander Nevsky. It's unusual that we're not getting a single work but on the positive side, this should prove a far more exciting and appropriate curtain raiser than the damp squibs of the last two years.
This year sees a reasonable crop of visiting orchestras, chief among them the exceptional Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra under Mariss Jansons. They were last here way back in 2007, Mills' first season. They impressed me so greatly that I travelled to London for a series of appearances they made at the Festival Hall over the following years (with programmes including Bruckner, Shostakovich, Strauss and Mahler). Sadly they have not been back lately, making their visit all the more welcome. For my money, this is one of the very best conductor / orchestra teams in the world and is absolutely not to be missed. Jansons is no slouch in Mahler 2 either, one of the works they're bringing, as he proved with the Concertgebouw at the Barbican a few years ago, rivalling the man himself for offstage brass placement. Be warned, he will almost certainly observe the five minute break Mahler marks in the score between the first and second movements (not a decision I agree with, and one which last time prompted me to fear seriously for his health).I'm even keener to hear what they can do with Tchaikovsky 6.
The other big orchestral name is sadly a bit of a mixed blessing. The Concertgebouw have a unique and wonderful sound; they are also Jansons' other band. Alas, they are not coming with him. Instead, their conductor for Mahler 9 is Daniele Gatti who last summer delivered some dull Wagner followed by an interminable Mahler 7. On the plus side, this does neatly solve one potential scheduling dilema.
I am grateful for the opportunity to hear Yannick Nézet-Séguin in action, as he has been making waves. He comes for two performances with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe with programmes including Strauss's masterpiece Metamorphosen and Beethoven's 3rd and 7th symphonies.
One rarely hears Schubert's earliest symphonies, so Marc Minkowski's Schubert symphony mini festival with Les Musiciens du Louvre Grenoble will make interesting listening for this reason, and will hopefully also provide good performances of the unfinished and the great C major. (Though interestingly, and in a move surely not calculated to maximise audiences, in the brochure they're give the German numbering of 7 and 8 rather than the 8 and 9 more common here.)
Personally, Mikhail Pletnev's two programmes with the Russian National Orchestra don't especially appeal to me and I wasn't blow away by their last visit in 2010 (albeit with another conductor standing in for Pletnev). I don't rate the partnership of David Zinman and the Tonhalle Orchestra as anything special though others, including apparently Mills, appear to. Doubtless their programmes of Brahms and Bruckner will sell well.
One slight oddity is the total absence of visiting orchestras from England, the first time for some while that has been the case. Perhaps this is a natural reaction the Brit heavy programme last year. All the same, it's a shame not to see the likes of the CBSO, the Halle or the LSO back and there are a couple of vistors I'd happily trade for them.
Of the local bands, the Ticciati and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra have an interesting programme which includes Webern's Five pieces, op.10, Schoenberg's Verklarte Nacht and Debussy's Prelude a l'apres-midi d'un faune. What makes the latter interesting is that it is an arrangement by Sachs under the supervision of Schoenberg with which I am not familiar. In the second half, renewing a successful collaboration they made for the Durufle Requiem in 2011, they are joined by the National Youth Choir of Scotland for Faure's Requiem. Sadly, while on paper their other programme looks promising (Haydn's 104th symphony and Beethoven's The Creatures of Prometheus) I am no fan of conductor Rene Jacobs, though doubtless it will appeal to many.
Peter Oundjian makes his festival debut with the RSNO in a programme that includes Adams' City Noir (which a few months later will provide fodder for direct comparison with Runnicles and the BBC SSO) and a new composition by Tod Machover, an interesting figure in terms of blending music and technology.
The BBC SSO's first programme, under their former chief Ilan Volkov, is extremely tempting, and but for an opening weekend that is far too rich and provides too many difficult choices, I would be there. They present works by Varese and Berio's sinfonia. Sadly, the festival has not learned the lessons from two years ago. In 2011 they put Volkov, the BBC and a programme of works by Jonathan Harvey on the opening weekend. Getting a decent crowd into the Usher Hall for a concert of works by living composers, or composers not dead for a long time, is a challenge at the best of times. To do so at the same prices as for, say, the Concertgebouw, the Bavarians or the Verdi Requiem is just plain daft. To further handicap themselves they have (exactly as they did then) scheduled it against Philip Glass at the Playhouse, thus further splitting the limited Edinburgh audience for 20th century music. The result was that the orchestra probably outnumbered the audience, which was a shame as it was superb. This year there will be two fewer seats as we cannot go (or, at least, cannot make it, Fidelio and the Bavarians work).
As my brother noted, it is a shame there is no concert opera to be found in the Usher Hall. This is a first in recent memory and not a good one. It is doubly odd as Mills has on his doorstep two of the finest proponents of concert opera you could wish for in Runnicles and the BBC SSO and Ticciati and the SCO, though neither has been utilised in this manner during his tenure. Perhaps, if the next director is reading this, they will take note.
And speaking of the man himself, Runnicles is on hand with Verdi's Requiem for the closing concert. He has proved himself a sure interpreter of the work at the festival with the BBC SSO before, opening it in 2005, which was the first time I heard him. To make things better, stunning soprano Erin Wall is on hand, who so impressed in Mahler 8 a few years go. Speaking of Verdi, it's worth noting that the programme is light on composer anniversaries: you will find no Britten, no significant Wagner and the requiem aside, almost no Verdi. This is actually no bad thing: there has been no shortage of any of these composers and I tend to find anniversary programming a little dull and lazy. Expect the Proms to be swamped with them next month.
It's also excellent to see Mitsuko Uchida appearing. I'd be astonished if this is her festival debut, but at the same time I cannot recall her having been before so it's most welcome. She plays Bach, Schoenberg and Schumann at the Usher Hall.
The Usher Hall programme also features a couple of concerts that wander a little way off the traditional orchestral beaten track. This echoes some positive steps in this direction taken at the 2010 festival, with things like Kronos and, for me less successfully, the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra. Sadly Kronos aren't back but we do get Bang on a Can All-Stars and Ensemble musikFabrik's tribute to Frank Zappa.
The closest thing the festival has to a theme this year is a link between art and technology. However, given that huge swathes of the programme are untouched by this, or at least, only tenuously so, I'm reluctant to call it a theme. There are some interesting offerings though, in what is the heaviest festival in terms of contemporary music which I can remember.
The highlight of this strand for me is cellist and composer Peter Gregson, whose praise we've sung many times. If you want an idea why, check out his album Terminal. He brings a collaboration with Mark Daniels and New Media Scotland called To Dream Again. The brochure speaks of interactions between audience and music so perhaps it owes something to The Listening Machine, in which Gregson was involved. Either way, I eagerly await it. In the meantime, he brings his and Gabriel Prokofiev's Cello Multitracks to the Queen's Hall tonight.
Pierre-Laurent Aimard has been at the Aldeburgh festival for a good few years now, so is an excellent choice for some contemporary music. He brings two programmes to the Hub which mix piano and electronics. I'll be going to the second, not least as it has some Messiaen and, unlike the first, does not have any Kurtag. The festival get their money's worth out of Aimard who also appears at the Queen's Hall with Debussy and Ligeti.
Elsewhere at the Queen's Hall, Nikolai Lugansky brings a programme of Janacek, Schubert, Liszt and Wagner arranged by Liszt while the Arditti Quartet bring Janacek, Zenakis and Nancarrow. It's not often you get the chance to hear the glass harmonica, so the Hebrides Ensemble's programme is worth checking out too (sadly I can't as I can only take so much of the festival off work).
All in all, it seems we have a good year in prospect. Indeed, it strikes me as one of Mills' more compelling programmes, the first week in particular posing some difficult decisions.
As ever, the festival closes with the fireworks concert. Once again Gary Walker conducts the SCO and this year's chosen music is Ravel's orchestration of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition which should be an excellent fit (or at least, so I assume, the programme lists it as Musorgsky, but we're not really in any position to criticise other people for typos!).