In advance of this year's opening concert I had my doubts. Jonathan Mills has several times resurrected neglected works which prove to be deservedly neglected (Delius's Mass of Life springs to mind). I recalled listening to a recording of the Debussy which made little impression on me. And Oliver Knussen at Aldeburgh tends towards the over full programme. As it turned out, Debussy's Le Martyre de Saint Sebastien proved well worth hearing.
The concert actually began with Schoenberg's Five Orchestral Pieces and Scriabin's Prometheus, the Poem of Fire. I don't think I've heard either of these live before. About the first I was sufficiently distracted by disruptive audience behind me that I don't feel I can properly comment. The second is a typical piece of large forces madness – huge orchestra, wordless choir and organ towards the end – which builds to an enjoyably loud climax but has a somewhat meandering feel up to that point. It isn't as satisfying a piece as The Poem of Ecstasy, but it was finely played and sung by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, the Festival Chorus and pianist Kirill Gerstein who I hope to hear again in solo repertoire. It's also always a treat to hear the restored Usher Hall organ in action, however briefly.
The best of the performance came with the Debussy. There is clearly a real danger with this somewhat episodic work that all momentum could be lost both between and within the sections. Knussen though shaped the whole masterfully – keeping it all flowing as one, drawing intense playing and singing from the ensemble, and building some really well judged climaxes. The work is a strange piece. To my ear there are echoes of Wagner (the opening of Rheingold), Bartok (the opening of Bluebeard's Castle), Mahler (in the instrumentation and the colour of sound) and as the piece goes on strong anticipations of intense Messian climaxes. It really does feel like a work looking from one musical period to another. It also fits as a Mills piece of programming with its echoes, which I might not have noticed if the programme hadn't mentioned them, of Palestrina and other early music, something he has strongly featured during his years at the Festival. The text, by Gabriele D'Annunzio is not the work's best element, and while it's enjoyable to read Roger Nichols's summary of the complicated drama I was thankful that no one had attempted to turn this into fully fledged drama. The best of the piece is clearly in Debussy's music, and in Knussen's hands I was really surprised what an enjoyable and powerful piece it proved to be. In addition to impressive performances from chorus and orchestra, there were equally strong contributions from the three vocal soloists – Claire Booth (who had the lion's share of an often very exposed high soprano line), Clare McCaldin and Polly May. Overall this was a really promising start to the 2014 Festival.
The audience in the Upper Circle included some of the worst behaved people I've had the misfortune to encounter at a performance for some time. Although I gather there was at least one rapt child elsewhere in the audience, behind me there was a child clearly bored out of his mind, and I can't say this concert would have occurred to me as a logical one to take a small child to. This meant a lot of whispering, rustling and fidgeting in the row behind for most of the evening. More serious annoyance was caused when the same party started taking photographs as the orchestra played, eventually with flash. In the row in front an equally bored young man kept checking his phone during the Debussy. Other people taking pictures while the performance was going on were visible elsewhere in the Upper Circle. The Usher Hall is unusual in not making a pre-performance announcement about the use of phones and photography or displaying prominent signs.