United Kingdom Edinburgh International Festival 2015 (3) – The Opening Concert, Brahms and Strauss: Edinburgh Festival Chorus, BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, Usher Hall, 08.08.2015 (SRT)
Brahms: Gesang der Parzen
Liebeslieder Walzer Op 52
Strauss: Ein Heldenleben
Every EIF opening concert needs a blockbuster to kick the whole thing off in style, and we definitely got one in Runnicles’ knockout performance of Ein Heldenleben. This is his home territory, and it showed in every bar, but what was particularly pleasing was seeing just how far he has brought the orchestra in this repertoire during his time as their Chief Conductor.
The opening theme bristled with confidence, the combination of strings and horns bursting with character, with vigorous upward thrusting; the very model of self-assurance. This was the Heldenleben sound you dream of: rich, velvety strings with darkly prominent brass and winds that could show both the sardonic nastiness of the Adversaries and the serene glow of the final sequence. Laura Samuel’s violin solo was glorious, beautifully lyrical while being at the same time as skittish and capricious as the wife Strauss was depicting. The battle sequence, for once, was not overwhelmed by the percussion, speaking volumes for Runnicles’ ability to temper the sound, and you couldn’t help but admire the way he controlled the massive build-up to the sensational return of the Hero’s theme and the Don Juan quotation. This was masterly direction, bringing the orchestra with him every step of the way, and I loved the way the horns gently glowed under the strings’ final statement of the Resignation theme. I don’t think you’d hear this piece sound as good in Dresden or Munich.
I found the first half of the concert a little bewildering, though. The Edinburgh Festival Chorus are meant to be at the centre of this Festival’s focus, as this is their 50th anniversary year but, lovely as these Brahms pieces are, they’re hardly the big occasion pieces that befit a concert of this stature. The light-as-a-feather world of the Liebeslieder Walzer, in particular, just doesn’t suit a big symphonic chorus and sounded a bit heavy and unwieldy. The other “songs” were very fine, as was the all-important contribution of the orchestra, particularly in the gently moving introduction to the Schicksalslied, but it hardly fitted the occasion. No doubt the bulk of the rehearsal time went into the (admittedly very impressive) Harmonium Project last night, but it’s a shame they couldn’t have begun their official Usher Hall series with more of a bang.
The concert was recorded for BBC Radio 3 and will be broadcast after the end of the Proms season.
The 2015 Edinburgh International Festival runs until Monday 31st August at venues across the city. For full details go to www.eif.co.uk