MUSIC / Earth summits: Raymond Monelle on reduced Mahler and full-scale Tchaikovsky in Edinburgh

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The Independent Culture
IF YOU hear a Handel oratorio sung in German, much of it, uncannily, sounds like Bach. Mahler's own piano transcription of Das Lied von der Erde gives a similar effect from time to time; it sounds like Wolf. This year's Edinburgh Festival offers the work twice, each time in an unfamiliar form. On 3 September, Schoenberg's chamber arrangement will be heard. You would think that the very essence of Mahler's inspiration was orchestral colour, the extraordinary shades and mixes that result from narrow streams of timbre that twist and glance against each other. We shall see how far Schoenberg retains this in the version for small ensemble.

The piano version, performed late on Monday evening at the Usher Hall, was quite a different matter. Suddenly the long symphonic items - the opening 'Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde', for example - seemed to resemble the great symphonic songs from Wolf's Morike-Lieder.

It is hard to believe that this version of Das Lied was merely a rehearsal score, as John Casken suggested in the programme: the piano part is massively virtuosic, obscuring rather than clarifying the threads of melody and intruding an element of strain where orchestras merely run on wheels. Peter Donohoe was, of course, fully the equal of every difficulty, but the piece nevertheless was more oblique, more enigmatic in this form. Its sunny innocence (in 'Von der Jugend', especially) was hidden behind a veil, in spite of Philip Langridge's august intelligence, and the spare lines of the second song, meant to evoke a pastoral scene, turned into black and white abstractions, a foretaste of serial cerebrations.

These splendid soloists preserved the work from banality, however, and the heart-breaking close, after Donohoe's dark and looming interlude, was delivered by Ann Murray as a hymn to loneliness, all the more so for the absence of 80 orchestral players.

Earlier the same evening the Danish National Radio Symphony Orchestra raised the flag for this year's featured composer, Tchaikovsky. The Festival Overture on the Danish National Anthem was more than a mere curiosity, suggesting the world of Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet rather than 1812, and linking the Danish and Russian anthems with skill and wit.

This is a very distinguished orchestra. Its mellow, closely knit woodwind and smooth, refined strings give it a classicism, a Mozartian clarity that survived even in the climaxes of the 'Winter Daydreams' Symphony; and the conductor, Dmitri Kitaenko, went for sharp boundaries and self-colours rather than sfumato.

If the highlight of the concert was Joshua Bell's account of the Violin Concerto, this was because the tall young American is possessed by such a spectacular demon; he crouches and leaps, swoops and hunches, producing a performance that is intense, breathless, capricious, gesturing, but not really warm. With a little less urgency and more wisdom, he will be a truly great player.

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