Edinburgh International Festival 2011 (7) – Toshio Hosokawa impresses with his new work

United KingdomUnited Kingdom   Ravel, Hosokawa, Duruflé : Sophie Koch (mezzo), Simon Keenlyside (bar), National Youth Choir of Scotland, Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Robin Ticciati (conductor) Usher Hall, 21.8.2011. (SRT)

Ravel: Le Tombeau de Couperin

Hosokawa: Blossoming II

Duruflé: Requiem

Robin Ticciati

For the last four years cultural philanthropists Donald and Louise MacDonald have helped to commission a new work for the Scottish Chamber Orchestra to play at the EIF. Previous years’ offerings have left me a little underwhelmed, but this year’s work from Japanese composer Toshio Hosokawa was a step up. On the surface it’s an arrangement of his previously written string quartet, Blossoming, though Hosokawa says in the programme note that some parts were re-written. His inspiration came from a lotus flower blossoming on the surface of a pond and he says he wanted the work to develop organically, like the flower, rather than through the western view of constructing music architecturally. It develops from a single sustained note played by the strings, barely audible at the opening but growing and holding for minutes on end. If this represented the surface of the pond then the lower notes depicted what is under the water and the higher notes what lives above. As an organising concept it worked well and provided 15 minutes of very atmospheric music-making, the shimmering, oscillating strings suggesting the buzzing of insects. Some simple but often very haunting wind writing coloured the upper registers and we had the occasional glint of something else from the percussion. It may not have been especially melodic, but it worked well in suggesting a mood and I’d happily hear it again.

The other works put us on more familiar territory. I’ve previously praised the SCO as being just the right sort of band for the orchestral version of Le Tombeau de Couperin (though I maintain that the piano version is more effective!). Under Ticciati’s lyrical direction the music moved with a seamless sense of flow so that the swirling textures of thePrélude were more effective than usual in evoking the mood of the dance. However, the minor key passages in the Forlane and Menuet carried a more profound hint of darkness than you normally hear in interpretations of this work; quite right considering that one of Ravel’s ideas in writing it was to create a memorial to some of his friends who had died in the Great War.

It was a much augmented orchestra that took the stage for Duruflé’s Requiem, and the sheer strength of the sound was impressive at the climax of the Domine Jesu Christe and Libera me, but they were still able to produce a sound of shimmering translucence in, for example, the Lux aeterna. Simon Keenlyside’s lyrical baritone sounded wonderful coming from the back of the orchestra, though Sophie Koch, standing in at the last minute for an indisposed Magdalena Kožená, sounded as though the part lay uncomfortably low for her voice. The biggest revelation of the performance, however, was the outstanding contribution of the National Youth Choir of Scotland. Carefully moulded by Chorus Master Christopher Bell, they produced a sound of clean transparency with open textures, despite their large numbers. Ethereal or threatening as required by the score, they were excellent at singing the flowing lines of Duruflé’s score and would shame many more experienced choruses in their ability to react and to listen.

The Edinburgh International Festival runs until 4th September in a range of venues across the city. A selection of performances will be reviewed in these pages.

Simon Thompson