Edinburgh Festival DVORAK'S REQUIEM Usher Hall

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The Independent Culture
The "Tuba mirum" in the text of the Requiem is a very obvious chance for composers to write effective brass music. Dvorak, however, as in so many of his musical responses, avoids the obvious when he sets these words; after a rather modest trumpet figure the soloists intone a stern warning, dominated in this Edinburgh Festival performance by the mezzo Randi Stene, enormously dignified and hieratic.

Then again, the sensational words "Rex tremendae majestatis", king of terrible majesty, are sung by a high soprano, without any fire or fuss; indeed, Jane Eaglen adopted a stance of ritual solemnity throughout, lifting her pearly warmth of tone above the clamour, avoiding personal appeal or noisy rhetoric.

Following Dvorak's lead, the conductor, Sir Charles Mackerras, decided to avoid easy effectiveness. The work was paced unerringly, there were moments of sentiment and charm, the powerful Festival Chorus were given their head in the "Dies irae", but Mackerras matched the composer's subtlety with a certain unprojected detachment. The Royal Scottish National Orchestra got the point. The male soloists, too, were right for the job - Thomas Moser a warm-hearted tenor, Alastair Miles a grave and mature bass.

The Stabat Mater is a different sort of text. It suggests a series of slow movements with very little contrast, and unfortunately Dvorak responds this time with the obvious. This makes it harder to bring off, even with alert performers. But the Philharmonia Orchestra sounded slovenly and the conductor, John Eliot Gardiner, had not given the piece much thought. It needed to be broad and warmly felt, but came over as ponderous and sticky, in spite of the celestial floated phrases of Jane Eaglen - we were lucky enough to get her in this piece too, the advertised singer being ill - and the dark opulence of another fine mezzo, Anne Sofie von Otter.

Another replacement singer, the baritone Peter Mikulas, deputising for Thomas Hampson, provided the high point of the festival's first week. The Ten Biblical Songs, settings of psalm verses from the Czech bible, are not often heard, but Mikulas clearly believes in them totally. He went from silent rapture to generous assurance, and when his voice quavered ever-so-slightly on a long high note it was caused by emotion, not failure of technique. The whole had a kind of golden simplicity that was overwhelmingly moving.

Libor Pesek had the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra playing with freshness and transparency - equally so in the trilogy of overtures, In Nature's Realm, Carnival and Othello, though somewhat less impressive, surprisingly, in Dvorak's Sixth Symphony, which conveyed peasant honesty without the necessary counterbalance of urbanity and sharpness.

British orchestras tend to make Dvorak sound like Brahms, but this was amply corrected by Mariss Jansons and the St Petersburg Philharmonic, who made the Eighth Symphony sound like Tchaikovsky. There was a kind of wild and tempestuous spontaneity that led to some blurred entries but spiced the performance with risk and excitement and, finally, brazen splendour.