Brahms’ Requiem and a Makeshift Strauss Opera Hit and Miss on the Fringe

19/08/2017

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Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2017 [3] (SRT)

Brahms – A German Requiem, NYCOS, St Giles Cathedral, 12.8.2017

Strauss – Ariadne auf Naxos, VoiceArc, Broughton St Mary’s Church, 18.8.2017.

As if he wasn’t already busy enough with the Edinburgh Festival Chorus, their Chorus Director, Christopher Bell, spent what must be a rare August night off conducting his other main Scottish Group: the National Youth Choir of Scotland (NYCOS). I’ve sung their praises many times elsewhere in these pages. Their quality far outshines their age and experience, and they can produce artistry of astounding maturity alongside the pure tone that you associate with young voices, together with bags of enthusiasm. When I heard them late last Saturday evening, they were singing Brahms’ Requiem, to an organ accompaniment, in the august surroundings of St Giles’ Cathedral, the High Kirk on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile. This made for a lovely atmosphere, as did the sell-out crowd, but the echoey acoustic inevitably led to a cloudy sound in places. To be fair, that was only rarely a problem, and in the slower passages, such as the first and last movements, the reverential atmosphere fitted the acoustic beautifully. The two great fugues, however, were taken optimistically quickly, and the ensuing aural fog wasn’t good, precipitating some inaccuracies.  Furthermore, be it the venue or the direction, some of their usually sensitive shading wasn’t quite up to speed either. The dynamic range seemed to stretch from ­forte to mezzoforte throughout, something that was particularly damaging in the second movement, and I couldn’t tell whether that was due to the acoustic, the direction or the necessity of keeping control in the unwieldy building. Never mind: it’s the peaceful aura of the outer movements that will stick with me the most, together with the dramatic contributions of soloists Andrew McTaggart and Samantha Sodden.

At least NYCOS got their show off the ground. Across town, in the lovely Georgian church of Broughton St Mary’s, VoiceArc’s planned staging of Strauss’s Ariadne Auf Naxos was torpedoed by “circumstances out of our control pertaining to copyright and performance rights.” Hmm: I smell a cock-up. They went ahead with what they called on “open rehearsal” for which, to give them credit, they didn’t charge. It led to a slightly awkward set-up of the singers being able to choose how much they acted. Some didn’t at all, some (such as Echo) did far too much, and the whole thing came across as a bit slapdash. That was reiterated by the fact that there was no information about any of the performers, barring each introducing themselves verbally, so I can’t single out any of them by name. That’s a shame, because some of them were very enjoyable, especially a really cherishable Zerbinetta, and a buoyantly confident Composer. Both Ariadne and Bacchus had appropriately big voices, if they were a little approximate on top, and I enjoyed the troupe of comedians, though I will go to my grave thinking that their scene between Zerbinetta’s aria and Bacchus’ entry needs to be drastically cut. Top marks to their heroic, if anonymous, pianist, who got the biggest workout of the evening and deserves a medal for sustaining it.

Simon Thompson

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