Today Jonathan Mills' launched his 8th and final Edinburgh International Festival. On paper, at least, the programme appears to be one of his stronger ones, presenting some difficult choices for the compulsive festival goer. You can't do everything, the old adage goes, and there have been years when one hasn't wanted to, but it is a very pleasant problem to have.
Oliver Knussen and the RSNO are on duty for the opening concert. The feature work is Debussy's Le Martyre de Saint Sebastien. I'm not familiar with it, and Debussy doesn't as a rule set my pulse racing so hopefully it won't prove one of Mills' damp squib openers, for which he has something of a tendency. (Initial research today on Spotify is not frightfully positive - and I guess I'll have to wait at least another year for the stunning opener Sibelius's Kullervo would make.) Still, Knussen normally brings plenty of energy. And the first half includes Scriabin's Prometheus - The Poem of Fire which should have no shortage of thrills.
The biggest visiting orchestral name is probably the Concertgebouw, who return with Mariss Jansons for programmes including Ravel's second Daphnis et Chloe suite and Ein Heldenleben which, if his performance of it with the Bavarians in London a few years ago is anything to go by, should be electric. Jiří Bělohlávek and the Czech Philharmonic's two concerts also look promising. Their visit last year was a highlight of the Usher Hall's regular season programme and his Martinů recordings with the BBC Symphony Orchestra are rather special. And who doesn't want to hear Janáček's Sinfonietta?
Indeed, Janáček provides a welcome strand in the programme. His two magnificent string quartets show up at the Queen's Hall (from the Takacs Quartet) and, best of all, Ilan Volkov and the BBC Scottish are performing his Glagolitic Mass in the closing concert. This is coupled with Sandakan Threnody, a new composition by festival director Jonathan Mills and dedicated to prisoners of war who lost their lives in Borneo.
Elsewhere the war theme is rather predictably picked up with Britten's War Requiem from Andrew Davis and RSNO. It has some fine singers in Toby Spence and Matthias Goerne. And yet, I can't get too excited: I'm a little Brittened out after last year, a year which seemed to feature a lot of War Requiems. A much more exciting part of this theme is Beyond Zero: 1914-1918 a collaboration between filmmaker Bill Morrison, composer Aleksandra Vrebalov and the Kronos Quartet (who are celebrating their 40th birthday). This is a welcome return after their 2010 debut. It is slightly disappointing therefore that Kronos's other programme is heavy with Clint Mansell's film scores from The Fountain and Requiem for a Dream. Very listenable, but hardly the quartet's most interesting work. It will also be interesting to hear Bernstein's Kaddish symphony, performed by the RSNO under Axelrod and narrated by Samual Pisar, a survivor of both Auschwitz and Dachau who wrote his narration at the composer's request. Ute Lemper's programme of Weill, Eisler and Stravinsky with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra is also an exciting prospect.
Fortunately there is some light to balance the darkness. Philippe Herreweghe and Collegium Vocale Gent impressed me when I heard them at Aldeburgh, so their B Minor mass should be worth hearing. So too their programme with the SCO of Haydn's Nelson Mass and Stravinsky's Symphony of Psalms. It seems a little unbelievable, and I'm open to correction, but I think that Paul Lewis's programme of Beethoven sonatas may be his festival debut. Certainly while I can remember his sonata cycle at the Queen's Hall from 2005 to 2007 and various season visits with the local orchestras, I can't remember a festival visit. [It seems I'm wrong, but that was before my time - certainly a visit is long overdue.]
Meanwhile, Mills' presents an adventurous early evening programme in Greyfriars Kirk which features Wu Man (perhaps a missed Kronos collaboration there), the Arditti Quartet and a performance of Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time, including pianist Steven Osborne. From the Queen's Hall chamber programme, in addition to the Janáček mentioned above, it is the final two concerts that most jump out: Frank Peter Zimmermann and Christian Zacharias playing Beethoven violin sonatas and Daniil Trifonov (who dazzled at last year's opening concert) playing Liszt's Transcendental Studies.
Last year we didn't exactly have the strongest opera programme imaginable (we won't mention Fidelio, okay, we've mentioned it once and hopefully we've got away with it). Fortunately things look much more promising this year. The headline must be Gergiev and the Mariinsky returning with Berlioz's epic Les Troyens over the final weekend. Earlier on in the festival, and tying into the war theme, we get Owen Wingrave, in a production that comes from this year's Aldeburgh festival. Mark Wigglesworth conducts David Matthews' chamber version of Britten's score. Overall that does represent fewer productions, but hopefully it's a case of quality not quantity.
On the plus side, there is a return of concert opera in the form of Rossini's William Tell. Noseda conducts Teatro Regio Torino (although the cast isn't terribly exciting). It must be said that it is a great shame that Mills ends his reign without once having tapped Runnicles to provide some concert opera. He has one of the world's great opera conductors on his doorstep, who has repeatedly demonstrated his ability to do concert opera well with the BBC SSO, and yet... This is all the more baffling and more frustrating since the Proms has done so (or will have done so) three times in the same period (Götterdämmerung in 2007, Tannhäuser last year and, it seems fairly certain, Salome this year). We strongly hope that incoming director Fergus Linehan will correct this.
Runnicles' actual programme doesn't grab me terribly: Holst's Planets (albeit with the interesting addition of Colin Matthews' Pluto), Berg's Seven Early Songs and Britten's Sinfonia da Requiem.
I'll leave a fuller dissection of the drama programme to my brother (which you can read here), though the them of war runs strongly here. Ubu and the Truth Commission does look interesting, in part for its collaboration with Handspring Puppet Company whose past work with the National Theatre on War Horse was impressive. There is a South African strand which also crops up in the dance programme with Inala, a collaboration between choreographer Mark Baldwin and Ladysmith Black Mambazo.
As ever, the festival ends with the fireworks and Mills clearly intends to go out with a bang, the musical accompaniment (doubtless from a reinforced SCO) including Wagner's Ride of the Valkyries and Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture.
All in all, it looks a promising (and from a personal standpoint busy and expensive) year. Booking opens tomorrow for friends and a week on Saturday for everyone else.
Some folk, alas not us, go their programmes in the post yesterday. On the plus side, when the festival website went live this morning, they had an easy PDF download of the brochure available. It's unbelievable how often arts organisations launch a programme without one. That would be fine if they gave an easy electronic alternative that allowed you to scroll through the whole programme, see a table summarising everything, etc., but in a lot of cases you end up laboriously clicking back and forward in order work out what's going on. Given such launches always have a paper brochure, a PDF download should be the easiest thing in the world. Alas not. Forgive the rant, but it's just nice to see things done properly. Other arts organisations, if you're reading this you know who you are, please take note.