Edinburgh Festival '97: Fringe

International festival; CLASSICAL MUSIC Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester / Pierre Boulez
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
The opening concert of the festival has usually consisted of a single long work: the Carmina Burana, Verdi's Requiem, Moses und Aron. At first sight, this year's programme by the Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester seemed merely a mixed bag. But one should have guessed: with a conductor like Pierre Boulez, there was bound to be some underlying rationale. So it emerged; Boulez's admiration for Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, demonstrated in a famous article on the work, led him to construct a concert in which that astonishing masterpiece was preluded by a series of related works which, though mostly composed later, sounded like preparations for The Rite. The concert consisted of a single work, after all, with hors-d'uvres.

Bartok's Four Pieces, Op 12, for example, exactly contemporary with the Stravinsky (although not orchestrated until 1922), had the shortwindedness, the wild gestures, the insistent rhythm of the great Stravinsky ballet, but they also related surprisingly well to Bartok's own later works; there were the Hungarian pastoralism, like a kind of rustic Ravel, and traces of the noisy city streets of The Miraculous Mandarin.

Speaking of Ravel - it was clever to precede the Bartok with that most Ravelian of works, Le tombeau de Couperin, played with impetus and swing, yet subdued in a kind of half-light, with a charismatic oboe soloist who typified the star quality of these young players.

Boulez's own Notations, like the Bartok, are an early work which the composer returned to later in his life. These brief pieces turned out to be the linking factor. The first four were played on this occasion; they had the powerful, virile gestures of Bartok and the delicate sfumato of Le tombeau, but they added Messiaen's bell-like harmonies and bejewelled textures, as well as Stravinsky's chiming, obsessive rhythms and, at times, a lurid violence that made you think of Chicago gangsters (who are supposed to lurk, according to Eric Walter White, in Stravinsky's Symphony in three movements). The final piece played (it was actually the second of the set) strongly recalled The Rite's closing dance.

This young orchestra has now established itself as a feature of the festival. They have a way of sounding as if they are discovering each work - however standard a repertoire piece - for the first time. Their Rite of Spring sometimes missed points or ignored details, but it was wondrously fresh, rolling easily forward at tempi that were often modest. There was lyricism, even tenderness, in the quieter parts; it felt at times like a chamber work. The opening bassoon solo sounded like a snatch of Faure, and the "pagan night" sequence suggested Ravel's Symphonie espagnole, for example. The savage dances avoided any feeling of threat, taking on the ironic snap and snarl of a jazz big-band. Even the final dance was played at a steady pace, giving it a kind of ceremonious defiance rather than wild abandon. The work was dramatic, but it was never dramatised; trust Boulez to shine a new light on an old novelty. Programme repeated at the Proms, 7pm tonight, broadcast live on BBC Radio 3