United Kingdom Edinburgh International Festival 2014 (1) – Schönberg, Scriabin, Debussy – The Opening Concert: Kirill Gerstein (piano), Claire Booth (soprano), Royal Scottish National Orchestra, Edinburgh Festival Chorus, Oliver Knussen (conductor). Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 8.8.2014 (SRT)
Schönberg: Five Pieces for Orchestra
Scriabin:Prometheus, the Poem of Fire
Debussy: Le Martyre de Saint Sébastien
2014 is the final Edinburgh International Festival to be curated and directed by Jonathan Mills. His chosen theme, appropriately enough given the anniversary, is war, and a host of exciting events are on the cards to commemorate and reflect upon conflict as a whole, not just the Great War whose centenary we commemorate this year. I struggled to see, however, whether the opening concert fitted in with this at all. None of these works are directly related to war or its themes, beyond the general. Perhaps Mills chose these works to introduce us to the culture of Europe on the brink of its greatest conflict. Schönberg’s Five Pieces (1909), Scriabin’s Prometheus (1911) and Debussy’s Saint Sébastien (1911) were written on the brink of the catastrophe but with no seeming inkling of it, and that in itself is a warning to us in our own times. Which of us can ever really tell when calamity is round the corner?
This is the third year in a row in which the RSNO have taken responsibility for the opening concert, and it’s a run I’ve enjoyed enormously. I’ve sung their praises often enough in these pages during “term time”, and it’s good to see them being given a high profile festival event like this to show how good they are on a bigger stage. Certainly, Schönberg’s colours, brittle yet sparkling, shone through as clear as day with sparkling vitality and energetic attack. Oliver Knussen imposed order on an often unruly score, creating something that was often very beautiful, particularly in the third movement, and in the midst of the orchestral upheaval there was enough room for the velvety sweep of the strings to shine through. Speaking of velvet, the clouds of perfume were wafting strongly through the pages of Scriabin’s Prometheus. I have to admit that I often find the composer’s sound world to be rather closed to me, too often bordering on the indulgent side, with a hyper-expressive tendency that can, in the event, be rather wearying. Often, to my ears, a lot goes on but not much actually happens. That said, the exotic textures were played beautifully and rose to an exultant ending, complete with chorus and organ, but I can’t shake the feeling that Scriabin was something of an evolutionary dead-end. I wonder what he’d say if he were around today to see how music developed without him?…
Rather like Scriabin, Debussy’s Saint Sébastien was an attempt at a whole new form of music drama that never really took off. Based on a play by Gabriele d’Annunzio, it was meant to blend spoken word, music, dance, visual spectacle and religious experience in a way that was destined to be a one-off, and not a particularly successful one at that. However, the concert format rescues some super music, even if it makes little sense of the drama. The opening, in particular, lands us right inside the composer at his most eastward looking, the pentatonic music so strongly influenced by Debussy’s fascination with the music of Asia. Again, the keynote was beauty with the luscious score mirroring the not always entirely pious interest that the creators had in the figure of the saint. It’s a difficult work to sing chorus in, because they spend half their time exulting and the other half lamenting. However, the Edinburgh Festival Chorus made a convincingly Gallic impression, particularly, ironically enough, in the final hymn, which is the least French part of the whole work. Claire Booth was a delight, her beautiful soprano sounding both dusky and bright at the same time. Perched on his stool on the podium, the vast bulk of Oliver Knussen made very few extraneous movements but still managed to exert an impressive level of control and a solid understanding of the work’s architecture.
The Edinburgh International Festival runs until Sunday 31st August in venues across the city. For full details click here.