Edinburgh Festival (11): Debussy, Schoenberg, Webern, Fauré

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United KingdomUnited Kingdom Edinburgh International Festival 2013 (11). Debussy, Schoenberg, Webern, Fauré: Daniel Doolan (treble), Sir Thomas Allen (baritone), National Youth Choir of Scotland (NYCOS), Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Robin Ticciati (conductor), Usher Hall, 17.8.2013 (SRT)

Debussy (arr. Sachs): Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune
Schoenberg: Verklärte Nacht
Webern: Five Pieces Op. 10
Fauré: Requiem

At first glance this looks like a slightly bizarre programme: there’s a Second Viennese School connection to the first three works, but Fauré’s Requiem seems like the odd-one out of the family. However, better by far to include less familiar work, such as the Webern, alongside with popular pieces because at least it gets the audience in: I was complaining about the consequences of the opposite last week.

Debussy’s Prélude appears here in an arrangement that was made in 1920 for the Viennese Society for Private Musical Performances. Its stripped-down form contains only one of each instrument together with a piano and harmonium. This inevitably alters the texture, with the strings missing out to the more insistent textures of the others, but it makes the piece sound, if anything, even more sensuous than does the original, the transparency getting to the very essence of what Debussy was trying to do with Mallarmé’s poem. That essentialism was also at the heart of Webern’s Five Pieces, each desperately brief and very thinly scored, but done so with such punctiliousness as to make each piece an exquisitely observed delicacy. I once heard Andrew Manze compare Webern’s music to mining for diamonds, and the dedication with which the SCO approached this work shows that they agree.

Their performance of Verklärte Nacht was even finer, Schoenberg’s intense melodies tumbling out of the orchestra in luscious waves. It was fascinating listening to this within only 24 hours of hearing the Chamber Orchestra of Europe play Metamorphosen. Whereas that work depends on transparency and individuality of line, Verklärte Nacht feels much more sensual, a far fatter sound emerging from each group, for all the in-depth nature of Schoenberg’s orchestration. In a piece which can be difficult to pin down, Ticciati kept a hold of the structure very capably, moving us through each section with a storyteller’s skill through to the sublimely moving final pages.

And so to Fauré, and to the wonderful young singers of NYCOS. When this same team did the Duruflé Requiem in the 2011 festival I was extremely impressed by the sound of this choir, and I remain so now. The girls, in particular, had a beautifully ethereal quality to their singing, delightful in passages such as ‘Te decet hymus’ or, especially, ‘In Paradisum’. The boys caught up after some pretty shaky pitching from the tenors in the opening ‘Requiem aeternam’. The full choral climaxes were helped by Ticciati’s arch-like shaping, rising to a wonderful climax at moments such as the ‘Hosanna’ or the end of the ‘Lux aeterna’, perhaps the highlight of the whole work. Daniel Doolan overcame his nerves to sing a very beautiful ‘Pie Jesu’, though Thomas Allen sounded distinctly off colour, even a little effortful, in his two solos. Barring some rather brash sounds from the horns, the orchestral playing was subtle and responsive.

The Edinburgh International Festival runs until Sunday 1st September at a range of venues across the city. A selection of performances will be reviewed in these pages. For full details go to www.eif.co.uk

Simon Thompson