MUSIC / Edinburgh Festival: A patron saint repackaged

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The Independent Culture
THERE ARE two ways to take the music programme at Edinburgh this year - as a recessionary sop to the box office, dripping with standard repertory, or as something serious, considered, even radical. The reason for the ambivalence is that the featured composer is Tchaikovsky, patron saint of much-loved melodies and family concerts and one composer, you might think, who didn't need the helping hand of festival exposure.

But Tchaikovsky's popularity rests on a small proportion of his output: the concertos, three or four symphonies, the big ballets, two of the operas and odd orchestral items like the Serenade and 1812. And while that sample isn't entirely unrepresentative, it shifts the focus of Tchaikovsky's work from what it appeared to be in his own time, and certainly doesn't tell the whole story. In fact it barely tells any story at all, because the surviving Tchaikovsky canon has passed beyond the point where we expect it to articulate much of importance. Familiarity has bred, if not contempt, a widespread critical disinterest.

So Edinburgh is saying: listen again, in the broader context of some unknown works; and the big contextual discovery so far has been an opera, The Oprichnik - unknown in Britain but a landmark score in that it was the first of Tchaikovsky's 10 (]) operas to reach the stage; and 100 years ago in Russia it was as a stage composer that Tchaikovsky was principally revered.

For this Edinburgh performance, in concert at the Usher Hall, a cast of largely Russian soloists was assembled under Mark Ermler with the Scottish Opera orchestra and chorus; and despite some major problems - such as Ermler's indecipherable beat, an ailing tenor whose voice threatened to die from the middle of Act II, and signs of under-rehearsal - it went well. The voices reflected the old and the new in Russian vocal style: a clean, hard- edged young baritone, Vladimir Glushchak; a more traditional, posturing but still exciting mezzo, Ludmilla Nam; the glorious creamy soprano of Galina Gorchakova, known to British audiences as Renata in the Covent Garden Fiery Angel. And as always in such circumstances, there was the thrill of apparent authenticity: a cultural correspondence between the singer and the song.

But there was also no doubt that The Oprichnik is a patchy piece. The genre is domestic trauma played against epic history: the son of a wronged family seeks revenge (and love) by joining the Oprichniki, the feared secret police of Ivan the Terrible. In doing so he invokes his mother's curse, is betrayed by his chums, and ends up on the executioner's block. And do you care? Not really, because none of the characters has much life and the narrative - especially in the cut version used by Ermler - is far from watertight. Motives pass unexplained; and until the betrayal, in the sudden torrent of activity that is the last scene, the dread Oprichniki seem quite good sorts. Which is not the idea at all.

The interest of the piece is that it exposes the Russianness of a composer we tend to hear as Western European. Later operas such as The Queen of Spades are clearly influenced by Bizet. But here, despite an oddly Carmenesque situation and a structural reliance on duets crafted in French romantic style, is a Tchaikovsky writing formal tableaux almost in the Glinka- dominated manner of the 'mighty handful' composers - folk dance numbers, glory choruses and all. I say almost because it moves faster and more lightly than the great works we know in this tradition, especially that last scene which has the breathless dramatic contraction of Janacek. But The Oprichnik reached the stage in the same year, 1874, as Musorgsky's Boris Godunov; and they have a surprising amount in common.

Further evidence of non-Western Tchaikovsky came in a recital given by the Siberian baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky, also at the Usher Hall - which is not a good place for song recitals unless the singer has a presence that can fill a barn-like space and Hvorostovsky has not. His emotional range is limited and his delivery too self-consciously controlled to make that kind of contact with his audience.

But he has other qualities: a firm, dark though not heavy beauty of tone, a wonderfully smooth line, and a way of seeming to snatch - elegantly and effortlessly - ideas out of the air as a song unfolds. Above all, he has the heaven-sent combination of youthful flexibility with a mature depth of sound. He is, in short, in prime condition - and a subtle if not always gripping interpreter of the Tchaikovsky songs in this programme, which placed them alongside others by Borodin, Rimsky and Rachmaninov. And yes, Tchaikovsky's songs do belong in that company. They may borrow accompanimental devices from Schumann but they take more from the broadly irregular melodic sweep of Russian folk- song, to which the accompanying figure is always subservient; and as if to emphasise the point, Hvorostovsky's final encore did without his pianist, Julian Reynolds, in just such a folksong. It was one of those ancient archetypal numbers beloved of ancient Russian singers, repetitive and rasping. But in the larynx of this young interpreter it had uncommon power. Pace Tchaikovsky, easily the most affecting item in the programme.