Edinburgh Festival `98: A bold vision lost in the fog

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The Independent Culture
THERE IS a limited range of big choral pieces suitable to open the Edinburgh Festival. Mahler Eight, the Verdi Requiem, Orff's Carmina Burana - they have all been tried, some more successfully than others. These three, at least, have a natural effectiveness which makes them colourful curtain-raisers and, in a sense, easy to perform.

The Berlioz Grande Messe des Morts is quite another matter. This austere, sometimes nightmarish piece, with its bony counterpoint and plaintive timbres, is extremely difficult to bring off. Of course, its battery of drums and encircling squadrons of brass, which Berlioz inherited from an older French tradition, can be used to bludgeon the public into submission. But most of the piece is accompanied by an orchestra without brass, thick with woodwind, and the choral parts are thankless and exposed. It is a symphony in greys and browns.

Undoubtedly, Donald Runnicles was right to avoid over-dramatization in this performance with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra in the Usher Hall. He seemed to have absorbed Berlioz' instruction, somewhere in the score, to go for broad effects rather than pick out separate notes. His gestures were gracious, soft, almost gentlemanly. The trouble was, the Festival Chorus had not really cracked the piece.

Of course, they were able to dominate the whole great fortified bastion of instruments like no other chorus on earth. But when it came to singing quietly - it came to that pretty often - they simply did not know what to do. Their tone was muffled and foggy, and they were generally a fraction below pitch. The effect of this in the unaccompanied "Quaerens me" was not so much to evoke the sighs of the sinner as the grimace of someone eating cold porridge. The worst was to come in the final Agnus Dei in which the men sagged painfully downward and had to be continually re-centered by the orchestra.

The tenor Gregory Turay discharged his duty in the Sanctus with a combination of poise and passion, and he was always in tune, thank goodness. The orchestra, too, played well, though problems of balance sometimes concealed their inner figures and the lilting rhythms went for nothing.

There had simply not been time for Runnicles, flying in from America, to convey his rather sophisticated vision to this great regiment of performers and Berlioz' notorious difficulties overwhelmed them.