A damned good effort

Cleveland Orchestra/Dohnanyi | Usher Hall, Edinburgh
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The Independent Culture

A packed Usher Hall, sold out long in advance, with all Scotland's notables (now including the First Minister) in the dress circle - this is the habitual scene of the Edinburgh Festival opening concert, yet the performance is very seldom quite satisfactory.

A packed Usher Hall, sold out long in advance, with all Scotland's notables (now including the First Minister) in the dress circle - this is the habitual scene of the Edinburgh Festival opening concert, yet the performance is very seldom quite satisfactory.

This year, Christoph von Dohnanyi and the Cleveland Orchestra chose to present Berlioz's La Damnation de Faust. They obviously meant business; they even brought their own choir across, although on the night it was overwhelmed by the great Edinburgh Festival Chorus.

You got what they were driving at, but somehow it didn't quite work. The orchestra matched Berlioz's wacky, gappy voicings by separating the tones of the sections, pitting rich, warm strings against greyish wind and introspective brass. Dohnanyi avoided merely massive effects, aiming rather at refinement and precision of tempo.

When it came off - the "Rakoczy March" had an irresistible drive, the Minuet a sparkling tracery - it was utterly convincing. But the oddest things went wrong. Percussion was slightly behind the beat, though the players looked completely at ease. The cor anglais solo in Marguerite's Romance was played beautifully but was slightly out of tune. What was going on? You even wondered if the refurbishment of the hall, now at last finished, had so changed the acoustic that musicians could not hear each other.

The enormous chorus, too, proved wrong for this piece. "The Ride to the Abyss" was terrific, of course, but the gnomes and sylphs galumphed flat-footedly and drowned the orchestral detail. The men were best; sadly, the women spoilt the final celestial hymn with a foggy tone that utterly missed the purity, the opalescence of this piece.

Probably, many of the audience had come along especially to hear the Mephistopheles, Bryn Terfel. He is certainly an impressive figure; he upstaged everyone just by standing up. But unfortunately he saw the role merely as a sneering villain. "The Song of the Flea" was ferocious, but it lacked humour and irony. The anti-serenade, an embarrassing, almost pornographic piece, was merely sung straight, the rhythms carefully etched, with the singer's eye on the conductor.

There was a Faust, Vinson Cole, who was fully the equal of the high notes, but who delivered the role as though playing an operatic hero by Berlioz's hated Rossini; and an excellent, sparky Brander (Neal Davies). But Jennifer Larmore, as Marguerite, gave the only consistently fine performance of the evening. Her tone was warm, rich, abundant, and she combined ardent passion with a kind of reflective control, capturing exactly the Berlioz spirit. Surely, you felt, this intelligent girl would never have been taken in by such a posturing Faust. Not to mention the limitless multitudes of comic demons.

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