United Kingdom Mahler, Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich: Alina Pogostkina (violin), Anja Kampe (soprano), Willard White (bass-baritone), Scottish Chamber Orchestra / Robin Ticciati (conductor), Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 31.8.2012 (SRT)
Mahler (arr. Britten): What the Wild Flowers Tell Me
Tchaikovsky: Violin Concerto
Shostakovich: Symphony No. 14
Benjamin Britten was one of the first British composers to really appreciate the music of Mahler, and he made this chamber arrangement of the Third Symphony’s second movement in 1941. When it was first performed in Britain in 1942, it was the first part of the symphony to be heard in this country. It’s effectively a reduction, as the instrumentation is all but identical. The string sound is a little thinner, of course, but it’s still characterful, and this arrangement gave the SCO a chance to show their mettle in the work of a composer whose music they seldom get to touch.
More players were on the stage for Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto, and the eye-catching Alina Pogostkina struck sparks off them throughout. The young Russian played with beautiful, Romantic legato, especially soulful in the lower registers of the instrument, and the molto espressivo theme of the first movement really sang. Ticciati also drew an extraordinarily lush, muscular sound from the orchestra. They produced a wonderfully exciting coda to the first movement, but provided an equally sensitive underbed of sound for the soulful Canzonetta. Pogostkina had a way with the finale’s main theme that was playful as well as virtuosic, and the orchestra responded in kind. The final pages became an exhilarating thrill ride that was always musical and never approached vulgarity.
Shostakovich’s Fourteenth Symphony is surely one of the strongest candidates to be regarded as his darkest work, and that’s a very crowded field! It’s a work where the composer looks deep into the abyss of death and finds no consolation – not even grim acceptance – and it needs two singers who are prepared to look in the same direction in an unflinching manner. Willard White still commands authority with his singing, and the hint of gravel that has entered his voice was used effectively to convey the seemingly bottomless pain of the poems. Anja Kampe likewise sang with thrilling clarity, electrifying every aspect of the verse but doing so in a way that came face to face with the darkness of the subject matter. The much smaller sized orchestra were on their finest form, the virtuoso turns thrilling in their transparency, and Ticciati conducted the whole work like a slowly unravelling psycho-drama. The audience greeted the final chord with a long, grim silence, perhaps the most appropriate response for a work like this performed with such bleak honesty.
The Edinburgh International Festival runs until Sunday 2nd September at a range of venues across the city.