It’s hard to figure out what a dismally innocuous Scottish Opera concert performance of HMS Pinafore was doing in the programme of the Edinburgh International Festival. Gilbert and Sullivan’s naughty send-up of all things English establishment got smiles and gentle chortles from the Sunday afternoon audience: of course it did, because its daft music satire is never not at least a bit funny (what, never?). There was some fine singing from a classy bunch of singers (John Mark Ainsley as Sir Joseph, Andrew Foster-Williams as the Captain, Elizabeth Watts as Josephine, Toby Spence as Ralph, Hillary Summers as Buttercup) who would have been better in Mozart or Handel or Britten.
An Uchida recital builds a special kind of tension: every cough, every rogue ring tone seems to matter more. Any intrusion feels a calamity because the soundworlds she creates are so exquisitely conceived, so richly poetic. She summons symphonies and humble songs from the keyboard. This recital had enough pianistic colour to send me home happy after the opening eight bars alone.
It was 50 years ago to the day — 22 August, 1965 — that Arthur Oldham jam-packed the choir stalls of the Usher Hall for the inaugural gathering of the Edinburgh Festival Chorus. 240 adults and 100 boys sang Mahler’s Eighth Symphony, among them a young Donald Runnicles. Three years later Herbert von Karajan declared the EFC “one of the three great choirs of Europe”; half a century later, via Verdi Requiems with Giulini, Stravinsky Symphony of Psalms with Abbado, Mahler Resurrections with Bernstein, last week’s Mozart Requiem with Fischer and a few other momentous landmarks besides, the EFC marked its anniversary with the apocalyptic might and perilous vocal challenges of Berlioz’s Grande Messe des Morts.
No voice in classical music broadcasting is more iconic than that of Donald Macleod. ‘Hello, and welcome to Composer of the Week': that gorgeously sing-song, softly authoritative greeting every weekday at noon since as long as I can remember. Macleod grew up in Scotland and he comes to the Edinburgh International Festival every year to present concerts for BBC Radio 3. Some are recorded at the Usher Hall, but most are broadcast live from the morning recital series at the Queen’s Hall. For listeners who can’t make it in the flesh because of geography or work commitments, mobility problems or ticket costs, these broadcasts are a way of dipping into that special Queen’s Hall live atmosphere.
The announcement came only on Monday that Lang Lang had withdrawn from playing Bartok’s Second Piano Concerto with Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Philharmonia the following day due to a nasty ear infection. No doubt the pianist’s many fans were dispirited, but what we got instead was a major turn up for the books: Pierre-Laurant Aimard with Ravel’s G-major concerto.
It has been a fine long stay at the Edinburgh International Festival for Ivan Fischer and the Budapest Festival Orchestra: long enough for Fischer to injure his foot playing basketball on a day off, long enough for us to get to know multiple facets of this intoxicating conductor-orchestra team. Last week they presented The Marriage of Figaro in a debatable production whose most inspired move was giving the musicians centre stage. A superb chamber recital featured ultra charismatic playing in Bartok and Prokofiev, and now this all-Mozart concert was a joyous culmination — joyous despite containing a requiem. The sheer musicianship of this ensemble, its depth, grace and dynamism, is invigorating to witness.
There are occasions when a scratch ensemble sounds like nothing more or less. Then there are occasions — this was one — when being thrown together can work wonders in fresh spirit and ultra-intent listening. Countertenor Iestyn Davies did a Wigmore Hall recital with a group called Ensemble Guadagni a few years ago: same name, different players. Yesterday’s programme of Purcell and John Blow featured a crack bunch of baroque music instrumentalists, led by violinist Bojan Cicic and powered from the harpsichord by Richard Egarr. A pair of recorders included the mighty Pamela Thorby, ever bold and rich-toned, while Alison McGillivray provided stylish, supple gamba lines and William Carter wove filigree textures and rhythmic thrust from guitar and theorbo. I could have listened all day to their exuberant, supremely sensitive playing in Purcell’s Fantasia: Three Parts on a Ground.
If there were doubts about the Playfair Library being the right venue for Rudolf Buchbinder’s Beethoven cycle — would fine details carry in such a high and narrow space? Would the sirens hurtling up and down Nicolson Street shatter the peace? — they should have been assuaged by now. From the various places I’ve sat during these concerts the sound has been loud and clear. The ornate vaulted ceiling lends a majesty to proceedings, and anyway: Buchbinder’s sturdy attack can cope with the sirens.
“I suppose,” admits the conductor André de Ridder, “I suppose I have a wide view on what I call ‘current music’.” It’s about as far as he’ll go: De Ridder is not one for big talk. He’s a Berliner through and through, born and raised in the German capital, son of an opera conductor and an opera singer, and he speaks with that unshowy cool that Berliners seem to have mastered since their city became the hippest on the planet. But with De Ridder it goes deeper than that. His artistic sensibilites embody Berlin’s musical culture past and present. He is a baroque violinist, an astute interpreter of core classical repertoire. He conducts at English National Opera and the BBC orchestras; he has just finished a Monteverdi trilogy with director Barrie Kosky at the Komische Oper. He is also the go-to orchestral conductor for indie bands, experimental pop artists and composers whose music straddles the spheres of classical and, well, whatever.
A Richard Egarr recital is rarely relaxing. High octane, muscular, a rush of blood to the head, yes; relaxing, no. The Amsterdam-based harpsichordist (and conductor; on Sunday he’s at the helm of Scottish Opera’s HMS Pinafore) blustered onto stage, bobbed about to find the sweet spot on the harpsichord stool and raised a cheeky eyebrow to the audience. There was an edge of slight chaos in the air. Repeats in the music seemed to be dropped at random; ends of movements were often slap-dash or downright abrupt. Moments of calm between the storm arrived unannounced — but when they did arrive they were suddenly stark, raw and searching.