United Kingdom Edinburgh International Festival 2017  – Prokofiev, Britten, Shostakovich: Mariinsky Orchestra, Royal Scottish National Orchestra / Valery Gergiev (conductor), Usher Hall, 23.8.2017. (SRT)
Prokofiev – Symphony No.1 (‘Classical’)
Britten – Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge
Shostakovich – Symphony No.4
Why have one orchestra when you can have two? This is the sort of blockbuster event that, really, is reserved for big international festivals of Edinburgh’s quality, and the bonkers idea of having two orchestras on the one programme, combining forces for Shostakovich’s biggest symphony, could really only work in this context. Work it did; but the first half didn’t make me optimistic.
The plan was for the Mariinsky to play the Prokofiev and the RSNO to play the Britten, before uniting for the monster after the interval. Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony left me dazzled with the in-your-face nature of the sound, however. The Mariinsky should know how to do this music better than anyone, but their sound was so bright, so prinked, so gleaming, that I was left wondering if they’d worked on their blend at all! I don’t normally complain about an orchestra sounding too clean, but this one felt like a crew of individualists rather than a proper ensemble. In fact, I kept thinking of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra in this year’s opening concert– an orchestra of a similar size playing a not dissimilar piece. That concert was all about them sublimating themselves to the service of the music; but this one felt like a superstar crew trying to draw attention to themselves. It didn’t help that Gergiev’s tempo was too slow for the first movement and too fast for the finale, leaving his wind section scrambling to catch up in places.
Enter the RSNO for Britten’s Frank Bridge Variations, and you couldn’t imagine a more different sound. OK: it’s a bigger orchestra, strings only, and a very different piece; but what stood out was the blend, the togetherness and the sense of internal communication. The sound was beautifully warm, with brilliant flashes of colour, such as the frantic strumming in the Bourée, the shuddering tremolos of the Chant, or the soaring violin theme in the Aria italiana. Gergiev also showed himself pretty adept at conducting a piece that’s far from his central repertoire, though I wondered whether he’d been coaching the orchestra or was it the other way round?
So how would it work when these seeming opposites combined? Actually pretty well, as it turned out, and not just because Shostakovich’s fourth symphony has a scale that drowns out any dissent. Part of the reason it worked is because Shostakovich’s behemoth works through laying down huge blocks of contrast, and who knows whether having partner orchestras might have encouraged them to revel in that rather than smooth it out? That was finest in the finale, where the bizarre Dance Suite at its centre felt like a grisly clown mask that brought no comfort, only grotesquery.
You have to take your hat off to the ambition of it all and, true, the vast climaxes were pretty hair-raising, partly because they tended to coincide with the composer’s greatest screams of pain. Gergiev was happy to embrace extremes of quiet as well as loud, however, and on the whole it was those smaller moments that stuck with me the most. I was particularly impressed with the way Gergiev shaded the big crescendo at the centre of the first movement, so that it seemed to come in careful waves rather than one big tsunami. It graded the tension but also increased the excitement, and the same was true when the finale self-destructed into the closing funeral march, as bleak and unrelenting as a nuclear winter. As the instruments gradually faded out, and the celesta continued its fruitless search for signs of life, I had one of those all too rare scalp-prickling moment, and any grumps about the Prokofiev were forgotten in the knowledge that I’d witnessed a collaboration that was pretty unique.
The concert was recorded for BBC Radio 3 and will be broadcast on Wednesday 13th September.
The 2017 Edinburgh International Festival runs until Monday 28th August at venues across the city. For full details go to www.eif.co.uk.