The opening concert at the Usher Hall centred on Schubert's A flat Mass, a monument to youthful brilliance and impertinence. The composer could not have imagined anything as massive as the Edinburgh Festival Chorus, whose towering cliff of sound in the Gloria felt like sitting under Beachy Head. Hot-blooded singing of the fugues underlined Schubert's composerly swagger, and the conductor, Walter Weller, balanced this with a Viennese elegance to which the Royal Scottish National Orchestra responded with colour.
The soloists were fine: Yvonne Kenny led the Christe Eleison with a tone that was white, classic, mordantly sweet; and John Mark Ainsley's tenor rang with upper partials.
Oddly, Janacek's cantata Amarus, a work of his relative youth, sounded middle-aged by comparison with his later, more familiar music. With its sunny melodies and Tchaikovsky-like harmony, it seemed less personal and more public than the others, and the tenor part lay rather high for the soloist, Stefan Margita. The agony of the outsider - the text is about a monk whose unhappy life was over-clouded by his mother's sin and his own illegitimacy - was dissipated by a final chorus, with chiming bells out of Boris Godunov, that sounded more like a ceremonial piece.
It is presumably the passionate directness of James MacMillan's music that has attracted a wide following. Hearing a group of early works, played by the Chamber Group of Scotland at the Queen's Hall, one realised that his technique centres on a duality, a double-mindedness, that either places two evocations side by side, without reconciliation, or layers them, like oil on water.
In a student piece for cello and piano, Study on Two Planes, and in the Three Dawn Rituals, for ensemble, lyricism and violence stood adjacent and separate; in The Road to Ardtalla the floating chords, hinting at folk song, were overlaid with a new kind of violence: simpler, more elemental. The Sonata for Piano, played with liquid clarity by Graeme McNaught, embellished a solemnly tolling bell with encrustations of bravura.
But these works now sound old-fashioned; their grinding Darmstadt discords were left behind by the post-modern style, notably in the music of MacMillan himself. A new work, . . . As Others See Us . . . , demonstrated this: a real contemporary voice is mixed with Tudor music and traditional song in an illustration of seven pictures from the Scottish National Portrait Gallery. T S Eliot is represented with a solemn viol fantasia and a blues for muted trumpet, a hilarious pearl of a number.
Although MacMillan's Tourist Variations was generally thought a mishap, it would be wrong to write him off as an opera composer. He has the lyric and dramatic gifts, but in this work, premiered at the Traverse Theatre, he had a libretto (by Iain Heggie) that was unsuitable for music - indeed, its poetic irony was positively hamstrung by being sung. The other new opera, Craig Armstrong's Anna, had some exquisite effects - the three voices emerging and sinking in an initial wash of electronic sound - but its theme (woman repelled by the hypocrisy of modern life) was a cliche, and the general atmosphere of angst became tedious. The performers, Alasdair Elliott and Eirian Davies as the would-be tourists, and Pamela Helen Stephen as a radiant Anna, were excellent.Reuse content