CLASSICAL MUSIC / An arranged marriage

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The Independent Culture
JANACEK AND Schubert make an odd couple and you might wonder what they were doing shackled together as a theme this year at Edinburgh. I wonder myself.

And so, evidently, do the writers of the festival's programme notes, who have been hard pushed to find something the two composers have in common. They gave up on Sunday's opening concert, which was a shotgun marriage of the greatest possible convenience. Schubert's Mass in A Flat (overwhelmed by numbers in a tumultuous performance from the Edinburgh Festival Chorus) paired with the early Janacek cantata Amarus, a rare work loosely but identifiably foreshadowing the composer's more mature scores. Both involved the RSNO under Walter Weller, whose ideas were grandly physical but coarse and made the accompanying Cunning Little Vixen suite sound like the title sequence to an epic western. Interesting, but wrong.

That said, there is a better music content now, with Brian McMaster running Edinburgh, than there was in the days of his predecessor. Monday saw the recital debut of Anne Evans, the rediscovered treasure of British Wagner singing, in a programme closely related to her operatic fach: all German, and on the heavy side for Monday morning, with Berg's luxuriant Seven Early Songs, Wagner's Wesendonk Lieder and Schumann's Frauenliebe und Leben. The Berg lacked an ideal expressive clarity, and the Schumann wasn't very fresh: there is a lot of weight to shift in Evans's voice, and it occasionally needs oiling. But for truth of feeling, strong and sculpted lines, and trumpet- tone en haut, these were exceptional performances. And in the Wesendonk she found her perfect metier, with the creamy, lyrical security of pitch that few serious Wagner sopranos manage to retain. If, indeed, they had it in the first place.

The hit of the opening week, though, was the new Scottish Opera production of Verdi's I due Foscari - or I tre Foscari as it became with the announcement that the baritone lead had vocal trouble and would mime his role while an understudy sang it from the wings. I'd never seen this piece on stage before: it isn't often done, or counted as a masterwork. But its compact strength is impressive and it has some good roles - mostly male, including an oppressed Venetian Doge who makes a prototype for Simon Boccanegra. Verdi's plot is a Renaissance tragedy of suffering and revenge designed to demonstrate the emptiness of what appears to be great power. And that, I guess, is why Howard Davies's production updates it to the 19th century where the ancient robes of state worn by the Doge assume a pantomime vacuity. He makes a lot, too, of the ceremonial attributes of the Venetian Council: their empty chairs, their hanging gowns. As the images consolidate they make a striking and attractive piece of theatre.

With the Doge divided, the first night focus shifted to the tenor: an en debut Chinese singer called Deng who sounds bizarrely and archaically Italianate, down to the last sob. It's unsubtle but impressive; and with some encouragement to open out the voice to more variety of colour and expression, it could have considerable potential. Richard Armstrong, meanwhile, makes a brilliant debut in his new job as Scottish Opera's music director. His conducting of Foscari is distinguished, masterful and energised: an indication, I hope, of what's in store.

The big risk at Edinburgh this year is the degree of profile given to the Scottish composer James MacMillan who, at 33, has a body of work behind him which is promising, sometimes inspired and often startlingly beautiful but may not be ready for the scrutiny the festival is applying to it. Tuesday's Queens Hall concert of early MacMillan and nothing else was too forensic, and did the composer no favours in exposing old scores where he was finding his voice, and not actually saying much.

But one interesting thing did emerge from it: the use of conflict as a structural device, which seems to be a constant in MacMillan's work. In most of these early pieces it was a matter of reflective lyricism versus rhythmic energy. In As Others See Us, a sequence of character studies drawn from paintings in the manner of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition, the qualities he chose to translate from canvas into music invariably came in antagonistic couplings. And it's tempting to relate these conflicts to the presiding paradox of MacMillan's personality, which is at once politically forthright and spiritually contemplative.

More on this next week. But it's worth saying now that his new miniature opera Tourist Variations, which opened this week at the Traverse Theatre, doesn't rest on any such productive conflict, and is weaker for it.

Meanwhile, in London, a brief salute to Steve Reich's The Cave, which is playing at the Festival Hall. Not quite opera, not quite anything, it's like a TV documentary but with music and high technology, and happening live on stage. The subject matter is the point where Arab and Israeli cultures meet, in the biblical personage of Abraham; and the text is a high-energy patchwork of the Old Testament, the Koran and filmed interviews with living people who say what, if anything, the stories mean to them. Reich uses the interviews and texts as source material for rhythmic, then melodic patterns - which take over the discourse, fragment the source material and steer the whole thing into abstraction. The effect is dazzling, exotic - the most rewarding product of high-gloss American minimalism I've encountered. Its sheer otherness is fascinating. But there is a precedent for the conversion of speech rhythms into music. It's Janacek. Now if they had a Janacek and Reich theme up at Edinburgh . . .

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