First published in the Guardian on 14 August, 2016
Usher Hall; Queen’s Hall
Here’s a dismal statistic. The entire classical music programme of the 2016 Edinburgh International Festival — 41 concerts, three operas — contains works by just eight living composers (that includes re-arrangements) and one woman (that’s Alma Mahler, dead since 1964). The ratio seems about a century out of place. Two years ago the festival added a strand of pop and folk music under the promising heading ‘contemporary’ and I got excited that classical audiences might hear some fresh stuff too — even that the notion of ‘classical audience’ verses any other kind of audience might genuinely start to blur into irrelevance. Instead we’ve been packed off to a museum full of lovely old things with the message that ‘contemporary’ and ‘classical’ are destined for two different stages.
A particularly fusty experience came via John Eliot Gardiner and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra in a complete performance of Schumann’s Manfred. Byron’s epic poem with incidental music for orchestra, chorus and soloists is a broodingly and profoundly tedious hour of romantic uber-angst, and we had narrator Wolfram Koch reclining neurotically on a chaise long at the front of the Usher Hall stage to drive home the point. Schumann’s overture is marvellous and the SCO played it nimbly, stormily, with a finesse and dark urgency in the lower strings that energised the whole ensemble. Gardiner’s Monteverdi Choir sang warmly, too, but their polite solo voices were no match for the kitsch excesses of this drama. Pacing lagged, attention waned and walk-outs were audible during the long (and beautifully shaped) cor anglais solos. It’s a shame the walkers banged the doors, but I couldn’t blame them for cutting their losses.
Sitting in front of me through that Manfred — and he did not walk out — was pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard, whose superb trio concert the next morning with clarinettist/composer Mark Simpson and violist Antoine Tamestit notched up nearly half of the EIF contemporary classical quota. This was a programme of multiple homages: Kurtag’s fleeting Homage to Schumann, Marco Stroppa’s gossamer Homage to Kurtag and the world premiere of Simpson’s new Homage to Kurtag. The common thread here is concision, the power of illusive suggestion and the art of using exquisitely economical little gestures to summon whole expressive worlds. (This is the Schumann of fantastical miniatures, not the Schumann of bloated old Manfred.)
Simpson’s piece fits the brief beautifully, with four compact movements flitting virtuosically through elegiac clarinet lines, musky piano chords and woozy, restless dialogue. It’s fluid, confident writing and the performance was terrifically committed. Before the start, Aimard darted backstage because he felt the air conditioning was too loud for the acutely tender, trembling and ghostly sounds the trio would be making throughout the concert. He was right — the quiet playing was absolutely riveting. You had to feel for the page turner, who had a coughing fit and looked like he wanted the earth to swallow him up.