One of the great strengths of the International Festival since 2001 (and a musical combination particularly close to the heart of this blog) has been regular performances from Donald Runnicles and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. This year they opened the Usher Hall series, and the second half especially provided a showcase for Runnicles's impact on an already accomplished orchestra.
Before that, the first half gave us three Brahms choral works in partnership with the Edinburgh Festival Chorus: the Gesang der Parzen, the orchestral version of the Liebeslieder Walzer and the Schicksalslied. Collectively these made for a solid, but not wildly exciting appetiser. The Walzer are generally good fun, if rather slight pieces (the chorus had particular fun with no.11's take on spiteful people judging others). The ensemble were at their best in the Schicksalslied where they found a wonderful, quiet air of mystery.
But the real meat of the evening was saved for the second half, when the orchestra and its chief conductor tackled Strauss's Ein Heldenleben. It's been some time since I've heard the piece and although I'm rather a fan of Strauss I'm much better acquainted with his operas than his orchestral works. As is sometimes the case with Strauss things do get a bit overblown in places, but he could write such yearning melodies and such exciting climaxes that somehow I never care. This performance was a showcase for just how good a team the BBCSSO and Runnicles now are. Runnicles's shaping of the piece both as a whole, and within particular sections was masterly (the build up to the climax in the battle movement was stunning). The orchestral sound the BBCSSO can now produce in this kind of repertoire has a really impressive richness and warmth. Then there were outstanding performances from individual soloists. Nobody put a foot wrong, but particular praise is due to Etienne Cutajar who took the punishing horn solos brilliantly, and to leader Laura Samuel (who had to contend in her long solo in the third movement with the off-stage fireworks of the Tattoo). Altogether it was a suitably blazing opening to the Usher Hall programme, and sets the bar high for the visiting orchestras to come. As a footnote, 2015-16 marks Runnicles's final year as the orchestra's Chief Conductor, but it is to be hoped his returns to the Festival as Conductor Emeritus will be frequent.
Earlier in the day I was also glad to have caught the first recital in the Queen's Hall morning chamber music series. Opening duties this year were accorded to the Nash Ensemble who gave fine performances of a repertory staple (the Schubert Octet) and a rarer work (Vaughan Williams's early Piano Quintet). Before the start I overheard the lady next to me explaining that she'd come for the Schubert, I was there for completely the opposite reason (especially after my brother's report on hearing the Octet at Aldeburgh this year), and the concert did not change my mind. I wouldn't say that the Vaughan Williams is a truly great piece but there are so many lovely things about it that I'd certainly hear it again live. It has some of those haunting, other-worldly moments which I associate with other pieces like The Lark Ascending. The variations finale is a lot of fun, including a grandiose eruption (at least I think it was there) for the piano soloist which almost sounds like a cadenza waiting for the return of the orchestra). There's also a magical moment at the end of the slow movement when the viola comes to the fore (played with marvellous feeling by Lawrence Power who I'd really like now to hear again as a soloist) before the movement fades out with a beautiful low bass richness. Vaughan Williams's writing seemed to me to give space to all the individual members of the quintet and to show a knowledge of how to let each of them sing.
The Schubert Octet on the other hand, while no less well played, and despite having in theory more instrumental colour, is a much duller piece. Schubert adds clarinet, bassoon, horn and a second violin but doesn't draw from them nearly as much variety as Vaughan Williams achieves with his simpler forces – the bassoon in particular seems to be given regrettably little opportunity to shine. But the bigger problem is that the piece has to my ear insufficient changes in mood to sustain its length. It remains pretty relentlessly bright and cheerful and while it isn't ever less than pleasant to listen to after a while I began to yearn for some contrast.
Housekeeping Note: The Evening Concert started at 7.30pm. Usher Hall concert start times vary in 2015 (as in previous years) between 7.30 and 8pm. As already noted on this occasion the second half was interrupted by the Tattoo fireworks. I didn't look at my watch, so I can't be absolutely certain, but it did appear as if, had the start time on this occasion been 8pm, the fireworks would have gone off during the interval. I don't know when the Tattoo determines its timings, though I would have thought it was early in the cycle, but I would hope the Festival is taking every precaution it reasonably can to avoid this kind of collision (obviously it can't be avoided entirely). On this occasion it did give the appearance that a simple solution had been missed.