MUSIC / Dream of a piece: Raymond Monelle on the Edinburgh Festival

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The Independent Culture
The Usher Hall concerts in the last week of the Festival offered a chance to hear the Cleveland Orchestra (a bit disappointing in Mahler's First Symphony) and included two big oratorios, Elgar's Dream of Gerontius and Schumann's Scenes from Goethe's Faust.

It is easy to joke at Schumann's expense. He sets Goethe's short lines laboriously, one by one, like the football results. His orchestration is unbelievably clumsy and obvious, with the two hands of the pianist always apparent in the texture. When the great poet provides fantasy - dawn skies, waterfalls and rippling streams - he responds with lumpish tunes from the Salvation Army hymn book.

The composer of Frauenliebe und -Leben was chiefly attracted to this theme because of its glorification of a goofy girl who lives entirely for a man. Yet a performance as good as this one, with John Nelson coaxing the Festival Chorus and London Philharmonic to heights of magnificence, and Boje Skovhus as an eager Faust leading a splendid team of soloists, made the work sound almost endearing, as though it were merely a sequence of simple but glowing melodies.

The Dream of Gerontius is exactly the opposite: a richly fluent setting of rather limited poetry. Indeed, fluency was the name of the game for the conductor, Sir Charles Mackerras, and the three commanding soloists. No one can match Philip Langridge in contrasting Gerontius's anguished cri de coeur in the first part with his lightness, a kind of easy conversational simplicity, in the second - and accomplished without a trace of the hectoring Heldentenor.

Ann Murray was more detached, a bit self-righteous and school-marmish. As the priest, Alastair Miles was dark, stern, stentorian, a powerful vocal personality. The Festival Chorus, overwhelming in the Schumann, here showed signs of strain; their soft passages were vague and wobbly and they entered flat. But they were at their glorious best in 'Praise to the Holiest in the Height', and they rode breakneck through the chorus of demons, with snarls of chilling nasal tone.

The Royal Scottish National Orchestra proved that they could match and surpass the great international orchestras of earlier in the Festival. Their brass chorus (just before the 'blinding flash') sounded positively Russian - as, indeed, did Elgar's harmonies.

The morning concerts at the Queen's Hall continued to produce some special treats. The Transylvan Quartet from Romania made Bartok's Fourth sound raw and dangerous, as though played around a gypsy camp-fire. The stamp and snap of the rhythm, the swing and lilt of the dance measures, the barbaric eloquence of the cello recitative, all added up to a peasant, expressionist Bartok far removed from dreary modernist ideology.

On Friday, the Ensemble InterContemporain showed that Boulez's Le Marteau sans maitre could be played with a sweet crystalline poise. The later Domaines was a much tougher piece in which a masterful clarinettist (Andre Trouttet) cajoled and harangued the surrounding groups of musicians, calling forth replies that were ironic, violent or nebulous. The total assurance of everyone, especially the conductor, David Robertson, belied the element of chance in this piece.