United Kingdom Edinburgh International Festival 2021  – Beethoven, Leokadiya Kashperova: Gould Piano Trio, Old College Quad, Edinburgh, 7.8.2021. (SRT)
Beethoven – Piano Trio in G major, Op.1 No.2
Leokadiya Kashperova – Piano Trio in A minor
And we’re back! Edinburgh’s world-beating arts festival is happening again after a year’s enforced break. It’s smaller in scale and it’s occupying less space, but it will be a festival like no other.
I did a little dance of joy when the Edinburgh International Festival confirmed, several months ago, that it was definitely going ahead, and I did another one when I saw the programme. As I have said before, for we Scots these are pretty much the first live performances we have had in eighteen months, and the EIF have done a great job of assembling a programme that is serious and starry, not just a consolation prize. The threat of quarantine restrictions threatens much of the programme (and, indeed, stymied this morning’s original line-up), but recent changes to government rules have made things look more optimistic than ever and I am hopeful for a great August.
The EIF’s biggest innovation this year is that nearly all of their performances are taking place outdoors in three specially constructed venues across the city. All of the chamber music, which would normally take place in the Queen’s Hall, is happening in the austerely beautiful surroundings of Edinburgh University’s Old College Quad, in which an open-sided structure has been erected that’s halfway between an aircraft hangar and a polytunnel. I approached it with a bit of trepidation, but actually it works remarkably well. Very wisely, they kept the roof transparent so that the natural light feeds through, retaining the outdoor feeling while providing protection from the Edinburgh rain, which will surely come! In fact, it’s rather atmospheric to be surrounded by Robert Adam’s neoclassical courtyard, listening to beautiful music in what feels like an unrepeatable setting. Trying it out at least once is as good a reason as any to come to Edinburgh this festival.
It’s hard to tell how the venue affects the sound, because a lot of amplification is used to get it across. Don’t be put off by this, though: they have worked wonders with it. The sound at this piano trio concert felt focused and channelled without ever drawing attention to itself, and you could be forgiven for not noticing it was amplified at all. In fact, the highest compliment I can pay to the whole experience was that, after a very short time, it felt normal. It felt like a regular concert-going experience rather than something freakishly odd and, if anything, it felt significantly more relaxed than a regular Queen’s Hall morning crowd would be. And of course, nothing could detract from the joy – finally! – of having real live musicians playing in front of an audience.
It’s a shame, therefore, that so many seats in this first concert were left unfilled. Maybe that’s because of a very late change of artists: the originally billed trio pulled out because of Covid-related travel issues, and the Gould Piano Trio gamely stepped in at short notice. It might not have helped, either, that their new choice of programme featured one work that most people won’t have heard of.
But then, Leokadiya Kashperova’s Piano Trio is a piece that almost nobody had encountered until just last week! Kashperova was a highly respected musical figure in pre-revolutionary Russia, probably best known as piano teacher to the young Stravinsky. She stayed in Russia after the revolution, after which nearly all of her works vanished, and sketches for this piano trio were found as recently as 2019 when it was reconstructed with contributions from the Gould Piano Trio and given its premiere last month at Northumberland’s Corbridge Chamber Music Festival.
From this hearing it’s an impressive work from a composer who deserves to go down as much more than a woman unfairly suppressed by the patriarchy. The dark, swirling strings of the opening over dark, rippling piano show this work to be what it is: important Russian music from the final throes of Romanticism. Kashperova must have had a huge lyrical gift. Her trio has a compelling line and a persuasive sense of development, and she is unafraid to write great, arching melodies. In fact, every movement is full of them, from the urgent opening to the lullaby-like slow movement with its gorgeous, singing string solos. The filigree scherzo gives way to a dark, dramatic finale that’s full of curt lines and abrupt resolutions. In short, it is a very impressive discovery, played here with the evangelical fervour of the artists who helped to give it life.
Next to this new discovery, the genial warmth of Beethoven’s Second Piano Trio felt like sunshine from a happier, less complicated time. The upbeat outer movements were played with a charming smile, while the slow movement progressed with serene warmth. It was played throughout with impeccable blend and a conversational style of communication.
In short, this was as refreshing and inviting a way to start the Edinburgh International Festival as I could imagine. There was even – truly! – some sunshine to accompany the music, streaming in through the see-through roof and reminding us all that it is still summer. You won’t get that inside the Usher Hall!
The 2021 Edinburgh International Festival takes place until Sunday 29th August in venues across the city. For full details click here.