Blockbuster End Augurs Well for Edinburgh Festival’s Future

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Edinburgh International Festival 2015 (22) – Bartók & Stravinsky: Yefim Bronfman (piano), London Symphony Orchestra / Valery Gergiev (conductor), Usher Hall, 30.8.2015. (SRT)

Bartók: The Miraculous Mandarin Suite & Piano Concerto No. 3
Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring

Valery Gergiev is now in the twilight of his period as Principal Conductor of the LSO, but this concert certainly suggested that their relationship is still in pretty good repair.  His tenure has not been an uncontroversial one, with rumours of his superstar schedule leaving insufficient rehearsal time and performances that were poorly thought through.  I didn’t find much to complain about in their Bartók, though, with a Third Piano Concerto that was disarmingly light on its feet. Right from the magical rustle of the opening and the piano’s whispered first theme, this gossamer-light performance belied Gergiev’s sledgehammer reputation. (Weight would come elsewhere in the programme!) The slow movement brought lovely strings and a cooperative temperament where the piano seemed to meet them in the middle, and the finale was rhythmically buoyant with an impressively clean fugal passage.  Yefim Bronfman’s approach was predominantly lyrical, and that’s probably the best way to approach this work, fitting in beautifully with (or perhaps leading) Gergiev’s vision.

The Miraculous Mandarin played to the conductor’s rhythmic strengths and gave the orchestra plenty of opportunities to show that they’re still a class act. (Whether that’s because or in spite of Gergiev is a question for another day.)  They manage to give an impression of chaos while always remaining utterly ordered, with fabulous rhythmic energy that seems to drive the performance from one strength to another, culminating in a hugely exciting chase scene (bravo trumpets!).

The Rite, of course, takes that rhythmic strain even further, but this was predominantly an impressively nuanced performance.  The opening was disarmingly gentle with no hint of the violence to come, and I was repeatedly as impressed by the quiet moments as the louder ones (the muted trumpets, for example, were barely audible but still crystal clear during the introduction to Part Two).  This was a performance of organic growth, not unlike the natural processes it depicts, crackling with energy throughout while still summoning very rich tone for, say, the strings in the Spring Rounds or the searing climax of the Dance of the Earth.  Throughout, however, Gergiev seemed strangely a little detached, beating time accurately but conducting as though stood back from the performance, as if allowing his performers to do what they do so well with barely any intervention or leading from him.  A few times I wondered whether he was a genius wizard who sets everything up and then lets it run, or whether this was indifference that comes from the habit of performing The Rite so much.

Either way, this was a suitable blockbuster to end the 2015 EIF and, I have to say, I’ve been impressed with Fergus Linehan’s first programme as director.  He has put the artist at the centre of his planning (rather than the concepts or themes that Jonathan Mills tended to prefer) and has acquired some big hitters who have been given rein to do what they are good at, and have done it very well indeed.  He has long term plans with some of these artists to come back in future years, and to work on projects that they already have in sight.  What these are only time will tell, but it’s an exciting prospect, and I’m more confident now about the long-term health of the EIF now than I have been for some time.

Simon Thompson

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