MUSIC / Heads in the clouds of sound: Raymond Monelle reviews Moses und Aron at the Usher Hall, Edinburgh

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IT IS almost incredible that committees, sponsors and city fathers were persuaded that Schoenberg's Moses und Aron was a good choice for the opening concert of the Edinburgh Festival. It is just the sort of modern masterpiece that ought to feature at great international events like this one, yet in past years we have had to make do with boring performances of safe standards like the St Matthew Passion and Verdi's Requiem or with, on one occasion, the empty rattle of Orff's Carmina Burana.

On the other hand, Schoenberg, though now as much of a classic as Bach and Verdi, still tends to empty halls. It was a thorough vindication of this courageous decision - and a tribute to the new Festival Director, Brian McMaster - that the Usher Hall was full, although the performers only had artistic excellence to recommend them, without any of the bankable qualities of what is now, I believe, called 'Pavarottismo'.

There was, maybe, a downside. Moses was given on stage at the Festival in the early Seventies. This time, there was just a concert performance. Unlike the earlier Gurrelieder, this is a true opera and cries out for the spectacle and atmosphere of the theatre.

In fact, this year's Festival contains no staged opera to speak of. A couple of single-singer miniatures, Cimarosa's Il Maestro di Cappella and Poulenc's La Voix Humaine, will be done in the King's Theatre, and Tchaikovsky's little Yolanta is to be performed alongside its original balletic companion The Nutcracker. Otherwise, just concert performances. It feels like the beginning of the end for this great musical event.

But there was no feeling of twilight in Richard Armstrong's vivid conducting of the Schoenberg opera. He was just the man for the job, sharp, accurate, tensile; and he held the huge ensemble in firm control. Perhaps too much control: his constant prodding of the beat and grabbing at entries gave everything a hectic quality. Much of Moses is hectic, but the easeful music of the Israelites, as they turn back to their older gods, the sunny choirs of Elders in praise of sensual delight, these passages ought to provide relief.

The BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and the Festival Chorus were extended to their extreme limits. The orchestra is good at playing modern works but, like most broadcasting bands, they sometimes sound too literal, too careful, like dogged sight-readers. As for the massive array of amateur singers, the chorus-master Arthur Oldham had performed a miracle in getting them through this fiendish score at all; they roared, whispered, hollered and lilted as though they had known the piece for years. The rhythm of such a huge body was bound to seem spongy, though, and the great clouds of sound concealed the exquisite qualities of the orchestration, laid out like chamber music on a vast scale, and obscured the words of Allen Forte's excellent English translation.

The opera is really a duo-drama. Only the two protagonists have real personalities, and they were ingeniously cast on this occasion. William Cochran is a virile Heldentenor, a persuasive Wagnerian singer with eloquent, fluid phrases and no special individuality, and his fresh tones, sailing above the bustle of the orchestra, epitomised Aron's engaging charlatanry.

Willard White both looks and sounds like a Southern preacher; he stood with both hands on the music desk and harangued bitterly, his final Sprechgesang a terrible gasp of desperation and defeat. This titanic singing-actor would provide the pivot for a very distinguished staging of the work, if the Festival, or somebody, could ever envisage this.