Pick of EIF 2018 – classical & opera

First published in The Herald on 27 June, 2018

Less than six weeks to go. Here’s my pick of classical music and opera at this year’s Edinburgh International Festival. Worth emphasising that this is the International programme only — there are excellent musical happenings on the Fringe, but that’s a list for another day.

Piotr Anderszewski. One of the few pianists I would cross time zones to hear. When he appeared at EIF in 2014, I wrote the following: “There is a singular and fascinating logic to everything that this Polish-Hungarian pianist does. He is so immersed in his playing that it sometimes feels intrusive to be listening. But it’s exciting to hear someone who so radically bypasses all received notions of interpretation – who doesn’t moderate his emotions into any kind of palatable middle ground.” This year he plays Bach’s Third English Suite and Beethoven’s immense Diabelli Variations. Queen’s Hall, August 7

Siegfried. We’re deep into the greatest operatic epic ever told — i.e. three quarters of the way through a complete Ring cycle in concert performance. This next instalment is the story of Siegfried: his childhood and adolescence, how he is raised by Mime in the forest and grows into a hero, how Wotan guides him to find the shattered pieces of his dad’s famous sword. How he uses said sword to kill the giant Fafner and take possession of the cursed Ring, how he tames the ring of fire to reach Brünnhilde and how she teaches him at last — at last! — to feel love and fear. Mark Elder conducts the Hallé with a solid Wagnerian cast led by Simon O’Neill as Siegfried. Usher Hall, August 8

NYOS. This is a bit of a scandal. In Scotland’s designated Year of Young People 2018, during which EIF is featuring youth orchestras from across the globe, our own superbly talented and committed young players were only slotted in for a one-hour token billing. Still, the orchestra has put together a fine programme of early 20th century music by Debussy, Cecil Coles and Lili Boulanger conducted by Paul Daniel. Usher Hall, August 9

Thea Musgrave at 90. We don’t pay nearly enough attention to Scotland’s greatest living composer — it shouldn’t matter that she’s lived in the USA since the 1970s, because her playful, perceptive, confrontational music demands to be heard. The BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra prove the exception to my complaint; they’ve championed Musgrave’s music since the 1950s and with conductor Martyn Brabbins they perform her Turner-inspired Turbulent Landscapes. The concert also stands out in an EIF classical music programme that is overwhelmingly devoid of new music, and of female composers. Musgrave fought that fight more than 60 years ago. More than 60 years. Usher Hall, August 9

Rattle and the LSO. Last week Simon Rattle conducted his final concert with the Berlin Philharmonic after 16 years at the helm. Onwards to his next band, the London Symphony Orchestra, who come to EIF for two nights. The second contains Mahler’s Ninth Symphony; the first features one of Bernstein’s best works, his Second Symphony, ‘The Age of Anxiety’, based on W.H. Auden’s huge 1947 poem of the same name. It’s some of the most powerful and inventive Bernstein ever wrote for orchestra, giving voice to the cultural condition and search for renewed faith after the Second World War. Usher Hall, August 10 & 11

Samson. The Dunedin Consort made their EIF debut two years ago, way overdue. At least the festival is making up for lost time, inviting John Butt and his world-class baroque ensemble back last year for the opening of the Queen’s Hall programme and this year to perform Handel’s oratorio Samson with a spirited cast including Sophie Bevan, Louise Alder and Alice Coote. Usher Hall, August 13

Beggar’s Opera. A fresh and ballsy production from the Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord in Paris. What makes it so good is not the updated text — though that’s fun, with biting satire and genuinely good swearing. For me it’s the musical stylistic collision that really works, with a cast of musical-theatre actors and a crack band of period instrumentalists from William Christie’s Les Arts Florissants. King’s Theatre, August 16-19

Ticciati’s Brahms cycle. The last recording made by Robin Ticciati as Scottish Chamber Orchestra principal conductor was a complete set of Brahms symphonies — spry, gleaming performances that already hinted at the depths and burnished sound of Ticciati’s new experience with German orchestras. Here’s a chance to hear that playing in the flesh: for Ticciati’s farewell concerts with the SCO he conducts all four Brahms symphonies across two nights. Usher Hall, August 18 & 19

Aimard plays Messiaen. There is no greater living interpreter of the music of Olivier Messiaen than the composer’s close collaborator Pierre-Laurent Aimard, who returns to EIF for multiple concerts. He plays a couple of Messiaen’s bird portraits in a solo recital at the Queen’s Hall on August 20. With fellow pianist Tamara Stefanovich he plays the ecstatic Visions de l’Amen, written  in 1943 not long after Messiaen was released from a prisoner of war camp; Messiaen associated harmonies with colours, and he wrote Visions in the brightest sky blues (Queen’s Hall, August 24). Aimard also joins the Scottish Chamber Orchestra for Des canyons aux étoiles, Messiaen’s love song to the earth and skies of Utah. Usher Hall, August 22

James Ehnes & Steven Osborne. A relationship born in Glasgow three years ago, when the Canadian violinist and the Scottish pianist played together for the first time in the low-fi loveliness of the Cottier Chamber Project. Back then they explored the music of Brahms and Beethoven for an audience sitting cross-legged on whatever floor space they could find. Now they return to a more formal stage with music by Brahms as well as Ravel, Debussy and Prokofiev. Queen’s Hall, August 23

Symphony of a Thousand. Mahler’s most decibel-shattering score — ‘a vision of the whole universe ringing and resounding’ — rallied 1,030 musicians for its premiere in 1910. Needless to say it’s generally festival fare rather than regular season fodder; this year we get a performance from Daniel Harding and his terrific Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra with the Edinburgh Festival Chorus. Soloists include two of my favourite female voices of the moment, Marie-Nicole Lemieux and Karen Cargill. Usher Hall, August 26