Classical: Modern tempos

Raymond Monelle reviews the best and the worst from the Edinburgh Festival
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IN A world of cheapjack trivia, the music of Pierre Boulez seems like an island of purity. This kind of Modernism is never a portrayal of anything, never merely picturesque or pretty. Occasionally in the monumental Pli selon pli, performed by the vibrant soprano Valdine Anderson with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, you hear familiar sounds such as the clamour of a belfry or the rippling of water. But this music is always a doing before it is a picturing, a working out of possibilities in a rational musical world. The conductor, Martyn Brabbins, gave a practical, no-nonsense account of the piece, his excellent musicians mastering the difficulties with a great deal of sang-froid. It was an inspiring achievement.

Even if audiences were not always large, it was good that this weekend of modern music took place in the Edinburgh Festival's main venue, the Usher Hall. The previous evening, Boulez himself had directed a concert of progressive music from the whole span of the 20th century, his own Ensemble Intercontemporain flashing and sparkling in the virile, forthright Integrales of Varese, witty and wry in the gurgling Chamber Concerto of Ligeti. Laura Aikin was the seraphic soloist in Stravinsky's Japanese lyrics.

In the final concert of the group, Alain Damiens mooched around the stage as soloist in Elliott Carter's Clarinet Concerto, and David Robertson directed the ensemble in two world premieres. Boulez's Sur incises is an expansion for chamber group of his own Incises for piano; the cascading virtuosity survives in this new work, in which three pianists and three harps, with an array of percussion, maintain rhythm through a network of enormous complexity.

The other new work, Philippe Manoury's Fragments pour un portrait, seemed to summarise the history of Modernism as well as pointing to a post-Modern future. The primitive atmospheres of Stravinsky led to traces of dance and ritual and to grinding, swirling and veering textures that were strongly visual.

The Festival Chorus, stung by the bad reviews they received for earlier concerts, pulled out all the stops in Brahms's Deutsches Requiem. The Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra did not impress; the strings were anaemic and there were mishaps in the wind. However, Jukka-Pekka Saraste proved to be the right conductor for the job. He began in a broad tempo, heavy with sadness, but soon his explosive and ferocious rhythms brought out the mighty power of the chorus, and he pressed them mercilessly to greater and greater outbursts.

Bryn Terfel, having withdrawn from his earlier Festival commitments, was at last present for this concert. His terrific rhetoric was worthy of a Wagnerian god, and was balanced by the more serious, detached soprano of Karita Mattila.

In earlier concerts, the Orchestra of the Eighteenth Century presented a sorry spectacle. Bands of "authentic" instruments can sound sparky and flavoursome, but the ditchwater has not been invented that is as dull as this outfit.

Best was the rather inconsequential ballet music from Rameau's Nais; Beethoven's Eroica Symphony fell flat, and in a soporific evening of Mendelssohn only Thomas Zehetmair's alfresco account of the Violin Concerto had any life, though the conductor, Frans Bruggen, gave all the wrong tempos. His attempts to sabotage the Italian Symphony were, unfortunately, successful.

A performance of Wolf's Spanisches Liederbuch by the instinctive, charming Amanda Roocroft and the jovial Olaf Bar could have been one of the Festival's glowing pearls. It was vitiated by a wrong choice of venue; with a tiny audience in the Usher Hall, the voices faded into the vast empty space, all intimacy lost.