Thursday, 24 August 2017

Edinburgh International Festival 2017 - Reviews

Edinburgh International Festival  - EIF 2017 - Reviews 

My musical introduction
  • Mitsuke Uchida In Recital  - 21 August 2017
I have no great knowledge of the minutiae of classical music, and learned most of what I know about it from my grandad's 12 album Reader's Digest collection of "light classical music". So with an open mind I have tended to just give things a go, without any pre-conceived notions about it. I have found that I particularly enjoy opera and twentieth century classical music. My oldest son however has been learning to play the piano for several years now, and has given me great insights into the music that he likes, of Mozart and Chopin. About 8 years ago when he had not long started playing piano, we took him to see Mitsuke Uchida play in Glasgow City Halls. So I was delighted to take the chance to see her again in the Edinburgh Festival this year. 

The Japanese pianist is a world renowned interpreter of the works of Mozart and Schubert, but the main reason that I rushed to get tickets for this recital in Edinburgh was because of the mention that she got in a book that I read recently. Absolutely On Music is written by Haruki Murakami, recounting his discussions about music, from several afternoons spent with Japanese conductor Seiji Ozawa. As they listen to a recording of Uchida playing Beethoven, Murakami says
"Her touch is so clear. You can hear everything so clearly - every strong note, every quiet note. She plays with total mastery: there is nothing vague in her performance
 Ozawa adds...
"Listen to that, those perfect moments of silence....What an ear she has for music!"
Murakami describes the next section of the music with a flourish 
"(a) beautiful piano solo unfolds, like an ink painting in space. A string of notes, perfectly formed and brimming with courage, each note thinking for itself.
It is a great book, with specific details about the music they are listening to whilst they speak, and timings about which sections they are discussing - the master and the enthusiast. In the era of music streaming you can find most of the recordings online and listen along as you read, part of the conversation. 

The stage is set at the Usher Hall, Edinburgh, for Mitsuku Uchida
Anyway, I loved that book and Murakami's description of Uchida's playing drew me to the Usher Hall tonight. The programme started with Mozart's piano sonata facile in C major K545. I didn't recognise it from the title, but the first 5 bars of this piece is the ONLY bit of music that my dad can still play, 50 years after he stopped learning the piano. My childhood was punctuated by his enthusiastic playing of 20 seconds of this before it faded into plinkity-plonkety, every time we passed piano somewhere. Though I had my own reasons, I am sure that I wasn't the only one with a grin on their face listening to this rendition of Mozart's playful, frisky tune. The reason for starting with this was evident in the second half of the performance which began with a modern Sonatina facile from German composer Jorg Widmann, a homage to Mozart's well known piece. When recognisable neo-classical phrases bubbled up they were scattered sideways by wild distortions. This was my favourite piece of the evening. 

The main meat of the evening was in two longer, and more dramatic, pieces by Robert Schumann. His tribute to Hoffman, Kreisleriana, crashed about one minute, before, quietly fading away and Fantasy in C major was a grandiose way to finish the night. 

Uchida is a star performer who held the attention of the whole hall. With her total mastery, there was indeed nothing vague about her performance. 

Edinburgh Castle

  • Mariinsky and RSNO - 23 August 2017
So back again to the Usher Hall two days later to see another classical music celebrity, conductor Valery Gergiev, tonight conducting his own Mariinsky Orchestra from St Petersburg and our very own RNSO. The reason for the combined forces was to do the final piece of the night justice. Shostakovich's Symphony No 4 calls for an orchestra of 100+ musicians and is a masterclass in grandiose music, conjuring up the "gigantomania" of the USSR in the 1930s. 

To begin we had the Mariinsky perform a piece from another major Russian composer of the 20th century, Sergei Prokofiev.  His "Classical"symphony rolled along sweetly, with crisp playing throughout, particularly from the lead violin. It is a piece of music written in 1917 at the time of the Russian Revolution, that straddles the music of two centuries, the 20th century and the 18th. It was a controlled and professional performance, without any great drama. 

As the Mariinsky Orchestra shuffled off stage, the string section of the Royal National Scottish Orchestra came on, to be led by Gergiev in a rendition of Benjamin Britten's 1937 piece Variations on a theme of Frank Bridge. The theme of the piece sweeps across the orchestra in the opening and swirls around again at the end with more force. In between the musicians are put through every possible method to play their instruments, at one moment pizzicato, the next strumming their violins like ukuleles. A slight lack of variation between the "variations" started to make the piece sag a bit in the middle, and Gergiev seemed to perform with greater languor than when he was guiding the music of Prokofiev. Overall the piece feels a bit cinematic, but the RSNO played as a tight unit, with humour and levity in their manner under the inscrutable gaze of Gergiev. 

The combined orchestras assemble on stage at the Usher Hall
In the second half the concert caught fire, with Shostakovich's Symphony No 4. The massed ranks of both orchestras filled the stage and Gergiev conducted with energy, holding the two orchestras together as one unified instrument. There is a lot of clashing drama in the symphony, but also moments of quiet, with lovely solos from various musicians showing how calm and quiet 100+ musicians on stage can be (I didn't count, that's a quick guesstimate). There was impressive musicianship throughout, playing a fantastic piece of music and when the final hush fell, the full Usher Hall paused in sat in silence, waiting for Gergiev's permission to applaud. Special mention must go to Lynda Cochrane of the RSNO who had the nerve-wracking role of striking out the final notes of the symphony alone on the celesta, and mopped her brow in relief at the end after. Поздравляем всех вас.  

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