CLASSICAL MUSIC / A minor disaster: Beethoven, Edinburgh Festival

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The choice of Beethoven as featured composer at the Festival sounded like a line of least resistance: most orchestras have already got some of his music in their repertoire, so it ought to be possible to put a programme together from what is available.

Beethoven, however, offers his own built-in resistance, and several of the concerts so far have shown how he can hit back.

The Borodin String Quartet have given four performances; their tough, dynamic style, with plenty of powerful momentum, ought to be well-suited to the late quartets in particular. But Opus 130 in B flat and Opus 95 in F minor both suffered from an undercurrent of anxiety. Quick passages tended to run away, while in the fugal slow movement of Opus 95 the work's steady unfolding was marred by irrelevant incident, as though the artists were traversing the road for the first time.

The Grosse Fuge was best; this strange abstract poem needs the gritty violence, the lack of shaping or refinement that these players offer. The galumphing, staring-eyed dotted rhythms, the unrelenting creepy-crawly of the meno mosso, the mechanical whirring of the dance measures gave an impression of cold struggle, a desperate journey through the tundra.

The Stavanger Symphony Orchestra had presumably been invited for the sake of their conductor, Frans Bruggen. The eminent musicologist is known best for his activities in the area of authentic style; very little vibrato, phrases laconically thrown away, dynamics edgy and bumpy.

However, it is hard to see why he, or the Edinburgh Festival, have wasted their time with this squalid little outfit. It is exactly what you would expect of a relatively small town; the strings sound vague, the woodwind asthmatic, the brass blowzy. They cannot master any kind of rhythmic character; syncopations are misplaced and close passages turn into a communal dither.

In the Beethoven Second Symphony, Bruggen tried to reflect the composer's notoriously fast metronome marks, sending the players spinning off into oblivion. This was no more than a sketch of the music; the Eighth Symphony was better, less breakneck and frenetic, though plagued with sour intonation and wrong notes. It was not a pleasant experience. The dry, niggling violin sound deprived the wonderful allegretto of its swing, making it sound like half a loaf of stale bread.

There was, fortunately, a lesson in the real thing from the pianist Alfred Brendel, who played five sonatas with a spirit of chaste sobriety that made even the innocence of the 'Pastoral' Opus 28, sound oddly contemplative. In the strong assertions as well as the light dance movements and sweet melodies, Brendel found something that resembled a lofty and visionary sorrow.