LA Phil’s Star-Studded Mahler Opens the Edinburgh International Festival

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Edinburgh International Festival 2019 [1] – Mahler: Miah Persson (sop), Anna Larsson (mezzo) Edinburgh Festival Chorus (director; Aidan Oliver), Los Angeles Philharmonic / Gustavo Dudamel (conductor), Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 3.8.2019. (SRT)

LA Philharmonic at Edinburgh International Festival 2019 (c) Ryan Buchanan

Mahler – Symphony No.2, ‘Resurrection’

And so it begins! Well, sort of. Actually, the 2019 Edinburgh International Festival began on Friday night, with a big, free concert that kicked off the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s weekend-long residency. They played hits from the movies to a big crowd in Tynecastle Stadium, home of the Heart of Midlothian Football Club in the South-west of the city, and it was tremendous fun. Since taking over the job of Festival Director in 2015, Fergus Linehan has staged a big, free, open-air event every year to launch the EIF, but this was both his most accessible and his most popular. The playing was top-notch, especially a sensational rendition of Bernard Hermann’s Vertigo suite, and it made a pleasing counter to the anarchic atmosphere in the crowd.

But this was the official opening concert, indoors in the dark, and with one of the grandest, most serious of symphonies to welcome us into the 2019 Festival; and the sound that the LA Phil brought to is was, in my experience, pretty unique when I compare them to other orchestras I have heard in Mahler. Maybe the movie concert is still living in my inner ear; or maybe it’s the orchestra’s sunny, southern Californian location; or maybe I am simply conforming to an all-too-simple stereotype; but this was Mahler playing that seemed to live in the glare of the spotlight. Everything in this Mahler 2 was so bright that it gleamed, meaning that the big climaxes were gigantic, but that the details were also brilliantly audible.

That was true right from the beginning, when that opening string shudder seemed to be a series of precise semiquavers rather than a mere tremolo, and the cellos and basses tore into their opening growl with such vigour that they conjured the aural equivalent of a mastiff. Throughout the symphony, the big climaxes had a level of power that was almost raw (and that you certainly wouldn’t hear in Vienna or Berlin), to the extent that, after the central catastrophe of the first movement, I wondered whether they’d be able to start up again!

This wasn’t just power for its own sake, though: it crowned an orchestral soundscape that was full of details. I don’t think I’ve ever heard the second violins, placed on the conductor’s right, play such an important role in this symphony, and countless aspects of the symphony’s inner workings sprung on my ear over and over again, such as the pictorial use of the bass drum, or the cellos’ gentle benediction at the end of the ‘Urlicht’. The brass glowed throughout, nowhere more so than in the great chorale that announces the Day of Judgement in the finale. Winds were sparky and full of character, and the strings took on every different nuance with aplomb. The Andante moderato sounded soft, gemütlich, even a little schmaltzy in places, but also delicately articulated, and the scherzo had a seductive darkness to it that I found really involving.

Dudamel himself showed that he understands this symphony remarkably well. Every climax was both prepared and relished, the ebb and flow masterfully controlled, and he took the massive finale in a direct, unhurried manner that made it sound natural and alive. Full marks, too, to the Festival Chorus, here singing in their first EIF concert under their new director, Aidan Oliver. They were spellbinding in their pianissimo entry (and completely in tune), and this gave way to wide-mouthed euphoria in the closing pages. In fact, it might sound superficial, but they seemed to sing with wider-opened-mouths than I had seen them before, and it made a big difference to the size of the sound. Maybe I am imagining that, but Oliver looked very pleased at the final ovations, and rightly so.

Some niggles remained: I had expected Dudamel to make more than he did of the infinite drumroll in the finale, and the major climax of the Last Judgement scene felt relatively underplayed. There was an unfortunate (and very obvious) trumpet fluff in the offstage band just before the entry of the chorus, and Anna Larsson sang a matronly, almost warbly ‘Urlicht’, in contrast with the ripe soprano of Miah Persson. Still, as a showcase for a great, uniquely American orchestra, this was pretty tremendous, and it is hard to imagine a much bigger sense of occasion, or a more star-studded way to kick off Edinburgh’s month as the centre of the cultural universe.

Simon Thompson

The 2019 Edinburgh International Festival runs in venues across the city until Monday 26th August. For full details click here.

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