Preview: Top-ten picks of Edinburgh International Festival 2014

First published by Sinfini on 18 March, 2014

Delusion of the Fury: Heiner Goebbels and Ensemble musikFabrik
Harry Partch had a wild imagination. Not only did the American composer invent his own harmonic system, he also built bizarre and beautiful instruments to play it. Delusion of the Fury is his final full-scale opera and inhabits a beguiling realm of myths and dreamworlds – the seductive, haunting margins of reality. Cologne’s brilliantly gung-ho Ensemble musikFabrik rebuilt Partch’s instruments in 2011 when this production was first outed at the Ruhrtriennale; composer/director Heiner Goebbels has the creative mind to match this outlandish masterpiece.

Les Troyens: Valery Gergiev conducts the Mariinsky Opera
Grandest of grand operas, Berlioz’s Les Troyens is a monumental thing: close to five hours of intensely vibrant, dazzlingly original music and an epic libretto based on Virgil’s Aeneid. It’s the summation of Berlioz’s creative powers and this production is a rare opportunity to see it fully staged in Scotland. Director Yannis Kokkos tends to go in for classic splendour, while Valery Gergiev will no doubt rally his vast Mariinksy forces to do much the same.

Bach’s B Minor Mass: Philippe Herreweghe conducts Collegium Vocale Gent
Philippe Herreweghe’s Bach is full of authority, understated eloquence and beautifully refined ensemble playing. Sure, the B Minor Mass is vast in its emotional scope and musical drama, but don’t expect anything overtly grandiose from this classiest of European period bands. Their performance is likely to be intimate, sensitive and keenly nuanced – and all the more powerful for it.

Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony: Kirill Karabits and the I, Culture Orchestra
I, Culture is the Eastern-bloc equivalent to the European Union Youth Orchestra, bringing together young musicians from Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, Ukraine and Poland. As tensions continue to simmer in Ukraine, now more than ever the orchestra’s founding principle of cross-border solidarity seems acutely important. And what could be more poignant than a performance of the Leningrad? Shostakovich composed his seventh symphony after the Nazi siege on the city, and its ferocious pathos drives home a message of indignation in the face of brutality and humanity that outstrips any conflict.

Mariss Jansons and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra
Ah, the sound of the Royal Concertgebouw: that polish, that suave exactitude, that glowing, burnished, irresistible plushness. Last year the orchestra’s EIF performance under Mariss Jansons of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony fell just short of perfection because it was, well, too refined – they seemed incapable, or unwilling, to accommodate the ugly cracks that make Mahler real. This year their two programmes promise unmitigated treats: Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloe and Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben are nothing if not celebrations of orchestral gorgeousness.

Piotr Anderszewski
Take nothing for granted in performances by this extraordinary Polish pianist. His playing is eccentric and fresh, meticulous, earthy, deeply felt and always unique. There might be rogue splashes of colour, unconventional tempo shifts, offbeat ways of articulating familiar phrases. None of it is gratuitous, thoughs: there’s a singular logic to Anderszewski’s musical mind that is always persuasive. His EIF recital pairs Szymanowski’s impressionist tryptich Metopes with the gravitas of Schubert’s Piano Sonata in C minor, D958 and should be a highlight of the Queen’s Hall series.

Kronos Quartet
Darren Aronofsky’s unflinchingly grim 2000 film Requiem for a Dream often turned to its soundtrack to express what a script could not: the ardent, propulsive score – composed by Clint Mansell and played by the Kronos Quartet – came to the fore in scenes of unspeakable horror and made for one of the most masterful uses of music in a mainstream film of recent decades. Philip Glass has been writing for the Kronos since the early 1990s and composed his Sixth String Quartet to celebrate their 40th anniversary last year. For Glass fans this concert will be a no-brainer: no ensemble plays his music better.

Hilliard Ensemble
Last chance to hear this iconic vocal quartet in Scotland before they disband at the end of the year. Their programme is a classic mix of ancient (Guillaume Dufay) and modern (Werner Heider) and picks up the tune of the French renaissance song L’homme armé, of which various settings can be heard throughout the festival. The place is right, too: the Hilliards thrive on reverberant acoustics and Greyfriars should make an ideal setting for their trademark crystalline, soaring sound.

Andras Schiff
At 60, the great Hungarian pianist seems to be wearing his profound musicianship increasingly lightly. His interpretations are as erudite as ever, but they’re also heartfelt, human and laced with a new-found soft wit. It’s a shame, maybe, that there’s no Bach on his festival programme – it’s in Bach that Schiff’s playing most often transcends from great into immortal – but his pick of sonatas by Bartok, Janáček, Beethoven and Schubert shouldn’t half make up for it.

The opening concert: Oliver Knussen conducts the RSNO
There’s always a fun buzz around the festival’s opening event; this year’s programme warrants it, too. Oliver Knussen delves into the opulent colours of Scriabin’s Prometheus and the terrific soprano Claire Booth is soloist in Debussy’s oratorio Le Martyre de Saint Sébastien. The repertoire should bring out the best in the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, who under former music director Stéphane Denève became one of the finest Debussy orchestras outside of France.

Edinburgh International Festival runs 8-31 August, 2014.