Edinburgh (1): Sparks Fly at Edinburgh Festival Opener



United KingdomUnited Kingdom Edinburgh International Festival 2013 (1) – The Opening Concert; Daniil Trifonov (piano), Yulia Matochkina (mezzo-soprano), Edinburgh Festival Chorus, Royal Scottish National Orchestra, Valery Gergiev (conductor). Usher Hall, 09.08.2012 (SRT)

Prokofiev: Piano Concerto No. 3
Alexander Nevsky

Edinburgh in August is the most exciting place in the world to be. After the Fringe and the Military Tattoo have already been going for a week – not to mention the Jazz Festival and others – the opening concert of the International Festival marks the point where the whole city is in full swing for the rest of the summer. Jonathan Mills’ theme for this year’s festival is the exploration of the interaction of artists with technology, so it’s quite appropriate that this year’s opening concert should feature the fruits of Prokofiev’s collaboration with Eisenstein in the score for Alexander Nevsky. It helps when this all-Russian programme is played by two of the most prominent Russian musicians today: one a fully established conductor with (probably) the healthiest air-miles account in music, the other a hot-shot young pianist who has already turned heads all over the world.

Daniil Trifonov’s EIF debut came in 2012 and it was one of the most talked-about concerts of that year, a fairly staid, reserved Queen’s Hall audience rising to their feet to give him a standing ovation. It was a shrewd choice to invite him to open this year’s festival, and he didn’t disappoint. Trifonov is a marvel to watch as well as to listen to, a force of nature who seems to teeter perpetually on the brink of chaos. When they strolled onto the stage, the two Russian musicians were a fascinating contrast, Trifonov’s nervy exterior contrasting with the implacable composure of Gergiev. That nervous energy then exploded into playing of remarkable dexterity, the notes seeming to ignite under his fingertips. The faster sections, particularly the very beginning and the very end, seemed to crackle with excitable electricity, but a beautiful sense of line ran through the slower sections: the first variation of the slow movement flowed and rippled beautifully, for example, while the fourth variation seemed to hang suspended in mid-air. Throughout, though, there was a rare sense of excitement written all over Trifonov’s face. He seemed to be irresistibly captivated by the music that was taking shape beneath his fingers, and that sense of excitement was infectious. Yes, his technical accomplishment is breathtaking, but it’s far from empty: it houses outstanding musicianship that will take him very far, and the boundless joy of the final pages spilt over into an ovation that showed that he is an artist that the Edinburgh audience has already taken to its heart.

Alexander Nevsky is far from being the most subtle of Prokofiev’s scores, and it can be a bit of yell at times, sometimes literally! However, it is music that Gergiev clearly holds dear and his greatest achievement was to turn the RSNO into a wholly convincing Russian orchestra for the evening. The keening strings, thunderous percussion and brash-toned brass (with special mention to the RSNO trombones who set new standards for Slavic rawness) helped to bring Prokofiev’s sound-world to life with thrilling authenticity. The Edinburgh Festival Chorus also did a great job of sounding very unlike themselves, unleashing the Slavonic passion of the text and music with a hell-for-leather sense of attack that spoke volumes for how well they had been trained. Gergiev himself was on home territory here, and he shaped the unfolding of the score with affection but a keen sense of purpose. He was at his most masterly during the central Battle on the Ice, whose tempo and dynamics built inexorably to the final climax of the Russian victory, with each aspect of the soundscape clear and distinctive. Yulia Matochkina, who sings for Gergiev at the Mariinsky, threw herself into her single movement lament with astonishing passion. Her dedication to the doleful text and heartfelt music was backed up by an opera singer’s ability to inhabit the moment, something that came through in her knowing ovations as well as her singing.

An evening of passion, dedication and commitment all round, then. If it’s an indication of things to come then we are in for an exciting August.

Simon Thompson