EDINBURGH FESTIVAL 97 /Rotterdam Philharmonic / Valery Gergiev Usher Hall

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The violist Yuri Bashmet and the conductor Valery Gergiev were a good combination in the Bartok-Serly Viola Concerto. Neither musician is primarily interested in elegance or good taste, and the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra, a particularly responsive and intelligent group, responded on Friday to their blazing enthusiasm.

Bashmet's first few notes set the tone. They were thin, starved, joined by queasy portamenti. Later, the fine phrases delivered to him by the orchestra's sparky soloists were answered with caricatured and distorted versions, the bowing half niggly, half spacious. When it came to Tibor Serly's amazing passagework (what a superlative "completion" this is; it puts Mozart-Sussmayr and Mahler-Cooke in the shade), Bashmet blasted in like a pirate boarding a civilised merchant ship. This was a deeply thrilling performance, fearless and brazen.

This orchestra has a fresh, incisive sound, with a striking homogeneity of ensemble that has something to do, I am told, with the acoustic of the De Doelen concert hall at home. Edinburgh's Usher Hall was less flattering to them, softening the edges of Bartok's Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta. The wind department, on the other hand, proved themselves masters of savage clamour and stony half-tones in Stravinsky's Symphonies of Wind Instruments, and accompanied the same composer's Piano Concerto (soloist, a commanding Alexander Toradze) with cold lyricism and whipcrack force.

The Rotterdam's second concert, on Saturday, was a "recreation" of a famous evening at the first Edinburgh Festival in 1947, when Kathleen Ferrier and Peter Pears sang Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde with Bruno Walter conducting. It has to be said that the new soloists (Anne Sofie von Otter and Ben Heppner) were in no way a recreation of Ferrier and Pears, any more than Gergiev resembled Walter. Von Otter is a true mezzo - a Dorabella, you could say - without the dark chest tones of Ferrier or Janet Baker (why do we never call singers "contraltos" nowadays?) and she was at her best in the passages of warmth, nostalgia, affection. The exquisite pictures of "Von der Schonheit" took engaging form, the orchestra adding a crystalline glitter.

She is, of course, a consummate artist. "Der Abschied" was a superb representation of sadness, yet it was lovingly shaped rather than deeply felt. Mahler's orchestra confectionery came over in many-hued detail, with a rustic oboe, ripe contrabassoon, and the moody sotto voce of the string ensemble, Gergiev injecting high intensity into the long instrumental interlude. Heppner's tenor is heroic in timbre but not totally commanding, and you sensed the strain as he coped with Mahler's reckless scoring. But there was a certain sweetness in the tone which surfaced in "Von der Jugend".

And where Walter and the Vienna Philharmonic would have produced a sweet and richly upholstered sound, the Rotterdam players sounded dynamic, airy, mobile, enormously refined in their attention to detail but always nervous, electric. A new kind of Mahler, perhaps. In any case, this orchestra made an outstanding impression; it has its own distinctive quality, sharp, clear, homogeneous, alive.

Raymond Monelle

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