music Beethoven; Schoenberg Usher Hall

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The Independent Culture
Sometimes you wonder if a concert has been planned with some political agenda in mind. Prefacing Beethoven's Choral Symphony with Schoenberg's A Survivor from Warsaw gives an odd flavour, a few years after the symphony was used as rallying-call of a united Germany; Schoenberg's piece, the angry protest of a Jew against Nazi brutality, seems to set a question- mark to Schiller's noisy hymn to the brotherhood of man, declaimed in the German language.

Whatever the political intent, the musical effect was staggering. The Royal Scottish National Orchestra snapped, growled and barked their way through the Schoenberg, making the most of the tart sonorities and tigerish fanfares. Olaf Bar mixed grimness with hysteria in the Sprechgesang narration; it scarcely mattered that the men of the Festival Chorus suggested a Huddersfield workmen's club rather than a Polish synagogue.

This seven-minute piece put the symphony into a strangefocus. The famous work is really a drama rather than a religious affirmation, asking questions it cannot fully answer. It begins cold, bleak, ruthless. The crisp detail and acid textures of the Schoenberg reappeared; the conductor, Donald Runnicles, took it never too fast, seldom too loud, and it pulsed with suppressed power which burst out with terrifying force at the start of the recapitulation.

The Scherzo travelled light, the wind ensemble sounding like a shower of diamonds. The slow movement was an extraordinary achievement, a profound pool of stillness, the long decorated violin melodies unravelling simply. This kind of frozen lyricism, typical of late Beethoven, seems to lead nowhere - straight to Heaven, perhaps.

In this case, however, it had to lead to the "Hymn to Joy". When this came it sounded lethargic and tentative, and Bryn Terfel's exhortation - "O Freunde, nicht diese Tone" - was nervous and gusty. The courage, objectivity, realism of the earlier movements was not so easily dismissed. Finally, the Schiller hymn felt like a paradox; the chorus yelled their belief in a benevolent God in clamouring counterpoint until everything collapsed on to a shivering, indecisive chord.

The whole movement had an edge of strain and panic. Paradise is attainable, Runnicles seemed to say, but not through the brotherhood of man. This was post-Holocaust Beethoven. It was a challenging way to start the 50th Edinburgh Festival.