Live Reviews

EIF 2015 review: Buchbinder 6

First published in The Herald on 19 August, 2015

Rudolf Buchbinder’s cycle of Beethoven piano sonatas approaches its final third — and it does have the feel of a very measurable marathon, ticking off mileposts and landmarks along the way. There go the Tempest, the Moonlight, the Hammerklavier: tick tick tick. In this sixth concert the tally reached 22 sonatas, so ten more to go. It feels outrageous to count up such emotionally momentous music in so callous a way; each one of these sonatas is a minor miracle in formal invention and expressive depths. But somehow Buchbinder’s impassive delivery invites an impassive response. The august clock of the Playfair Library hangs above his piano, and he charges on as though he can’t escape its gaze.

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EIF 2015 review: Sarah Connolly & Malcolm Martineau

First published in The Herald on 18 August, 2015

“Thank you all for being here,” said mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly before her encore — a breezy Dominic Muldowney setting of In Paris with You, worth it alone for that inspired James Fenton line: ‘sod off to sodding Notre Dame’. “I know,” Connolly added, “that it was an early start for all of us…” Plenty of singers balk at the 9am warm-up call for Queen’s Hall morning recitals. Big voices can take hours to limber up; whole day-long routines are often shifted to the wee hours accordingly. Yet Connolly gives the impression she wouldn’t make a fuss of anything much. Few singers can match her solid authority, collected grace and unfussy insight.

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EIF 2015 review: Oslo Phil 2

First published in the Guardian on 17 August, 2015

Vasily Petrenko’s stony expression spoke volumes. He had just conducted the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra in a dauntless account of Sibelius’s First Symphony, every theme unfolded with steel-clad logic. The Scherzo had been acrid, the Andante haunted and soul-searching. The closing bars were so weighty, so intensely loaded, that they implied not only the inescapable doomed heroism of the symphony’s cyclical arch but also the start of something altogether bigger: a grave upbeat to Sibelius’s whole symphonic future with all the desolate and wondrous places it would lead. Into this ultra-charged moment came a smattering of hasty clapping which fizzled into excruciatingly awkward silence before the applause proper began. Petrenko was not amused, though he did cheer up enough to deliver a pair of deadpan encores: Sibelius’s Valse triste and a razor-sharp, caustic romp through Grieg’s In The Hall of the Mountain King.

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EIF 2015 review: Oslo Phil 1

First published in The Herald on 17 August, 2015

Two nights, two Nordic folk epics. The Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra began its stay at the Edinburgh International Festival with Grieg’s music for the Ibsen play Peer Gynt. The previous night we heard Sibelius’s Kullervo from Edward Gardner and the RSNO. The performances were worlds apart: the Sibelius a fiery romp, a gush of Finnish patriotism; the Grieg lithe, pristine, chiselled, archetypical.

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EIF 2015 review: Kullervo, RSNO, Gardner

First published in the Guardian on 16 August, 2015

Sibelius was young and intense when he wrote Kullervo, an epic amalgam of symphony and cantata that he infused with such bombastic patriotism he would later look back and cringe. “This UrFinnishness has got into my flesh and blood,” he told his future wife while working on the score and boy, does the music let it show. Kullervo himself is a Finnish folk hero who accidentally seduces his sister then goes on a killing spree that culminates with himself. The piece was a major hit when it premiered in Helsinki in 1892; now, here, the dubious eroticism and blithe violence seem plain cartoonish — but the lusty drama of the music is irresistible in a performance as exciting as this.

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EIF 2015 review: The Marriage of Figaro

First published in the Guardian on 14 August, 2015

“Mozart’s music is extremely theatrical and his theatre is extremely musical,” writes Ivan Fischer, conductor and director of this Budapest Festival Orchestra (BFO) production. Searching for what he calls “an organic unity” between stage and score, Fischer ditches the pit and places cast and chorus in among the orchestra. The result? Intriguing initially, inspired occasionally, musically exciting in parts. But at heart this is a production so conservative it would never pass muster without the novelty stage layout.

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EIF 2015 review: Angela Hewitt

First published in The Herald on 14 August, 2015

Domenico Scarlatti was born in Naples in 1685 (same year as Bach and Handel; what a year) but lived more than half of his life in Spain and Portugal. His single-movement piano sonatas are like nothing else from that period or since — ultra-lush sonorities, rhythmic recklessness, boundless melodic invention — and though the Italians claim him, it was Iberian chord patterns and dance forms that more deeply influenced his bonkers, beautiful language.

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EIF 2015 review: The Rake’s Progress

First published in the Guardian on 13 August, 2015

This opera spins its magic on so many levels. The lithe neo-classicism of Stravinsky’s score; the deft, poignant wit of Auden and Kallman’s verse; the moral take-home of Hogarth’s stern allegorical paintings and the modern commentary it becomes. Thomas Ades once described the piece as a flower whose many miraculous layers are there to be peeled back. Performances can be high comedy or dry moralising; the best accounts reveal a rare emotional tenderness that Stravinsky lets slip, though he never liked to admit it.

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EIF 2015 review: The Last Hotel

First published in the Guardian on 11 August, 2015

This is a potently compact, searingly powerful new chamber work in which death hangs over every move — the titular hotel is a shabby establishment where guests go to commit suicide. Written and directed by Enda Walsh, it’s a devastating indictment of societal preoccupations and a heartbreaking portrayal of loneliness and loveless relationships. Walsh is a master of loading up innocuous lines — “two keys will be fine”; “coupons to gain access to the internet” — with tragic banality.  One character can dream only of home extensions, another sings dismally of corporate events and eating disorders. Dialogue begins in awkward speech then switches abruptly to song when we enter the murky hyperreality of the hotel. It’s jarring, but it works.

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EIF 2015 review: Buchbinder 3

First published in the Guardian on 11 August, 2015

There is never much downtime with Rudolf Buchbinder. The indefatigable 68-year-old Viennese pianist plays Beethoven’s complete piano sonatas across nine concerts at this year’s Edinburgh International Festival: it’s a marathon he has run nearly 50 times before, and by the looks of things he could do it 50 times again without breaking sweat. At his third concert he left barely a breath between sonatas, let alone movements, and hurtled through most of it at fearless speeds. The brio was impressive and very bracing, but I often found myself longing for all of the wondrous detail we were clattering past along the way.

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