Music: The Barbara Cartland seal of approval

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Indy Lifestyle Online
Everyone becomes a critic during Edinburgh, from columnists to cabbies; and as so many of them spent the week prophesying doom for the Largest Arts Festival in the World, I spent my week trying, with an independence worthy of the masthead of this newspaper, to find a different story. But it wasn't easy. On the whole it really does seem that the camel's back is breaking, overwhelmed by one too many straws of mediocrity. The music programme is conspicuously uninspiring - too reliant on the same old artists doing what they've done before. And with the novelties, the quality control is random - unforgivable when Edinburgh's "events" are largely bought- in packages from overseas which someone should have seen and stopped from coming.

Take the Orfeo ed Eurydice which has been running at the Festival Theatre in a collaboration between the choreographer Mark Morris and conductor Christopher Hogwood. On paper it looked interesting - an attempt to return to the original spirit of a piece which, when it premiered at the Viennese court in 1762, was very much an 18th-century Gesamtkunstwerk: not just music for voices but a multidisciplinary "azione teatrale", with almost equal-status input from composer, librettist and choreographer (hence the quantity of dance music in the score, and the problem it causes latterday directors whose theatrecraft only works with artists who keep their knees below their navel). Drafting in a dance-man like Mark Morris as director was potentially an answer; and it bode well (a) that the production was to be historically informed under a scholar-conductor, and (b) that it resisted the temptation to use Gluck's later, Paris version, which provides still greater dancing opportunities but is by common consent musically inferior.

All very responsible. But rarely in the modern history of music theatre have good intentions gone more miserably awry - beginning with a set which was a cross between a Californian funeral parlour and the sort of showbiz neo-classicism that does service by the yard at Oscar ceremonies: all net drapes and plastic columns, with a Stepford Wife-like chorus frozen into evening dress and weak smiles to the left and right. We seemed to be awaiting Robert Redford with an envelope. Instead we got Mark Morris and his dancers in a fluttering orgy of Bri-Nylon togas, prancing through pretentious parodies of classicism that were camp, grotesque and clumsily inept. An animated chapter from the Barbara Cartland book of taste.

As for the music, Michael Chance's Orpheus began well, with elegant embellishment on the repeats, but soon tired - his credibility unenhanced by the black frock and wet-look perm that made him look like someone's grandmother. Christine Brandes's bright and promising Amor had similar problems with a costume whose vulgarity overstated the Puckish gaucheness legitimate to the role. And the Handel & Haydn Society, an American old-instrument orchestra, supplied the sort of playing we all thought period bands had jettisoned years ago: sour, rough, out of tune, unmusical and shapeless. That a reputable conductor like Hogwood could associate himself with this - still worse, conduct it with such sluggish dullness - is beyond me.

Donald Runnicles, an American-based Scottish conductor who seems to have been adopted by the Festival, did better in Britten's War Requiem at the Usher Hall on Monday; but it takes more than that for a single conductor to dovetail the separate ensembles in the score - which is why it's often done with two - and especially when, as here, he conducts with his left hand but sits the self-contained chamber group to his right. The result was a performance that impressed through the calibre of its soloists - Anthony Rolfe Johnson, Thomas Quasthoff and Elena Prokina - but was otherwise provincial. The Edinburgh Festival Chorus had a clean attack at volume but disintegrated at anything less than mezzo-piano. And the Scottish National Orchestra were unremarkable except for scrappy intonation from the wind and brass. No match, even, for the youth orchestra that followed them at the Hall the next night.

But then it was an exceptional youth orchestra, the Gustav Mahler Jugend, playing under its exceptional conductor Claudio Abbado; and here, at last, the week's music at Edinburgh looked up, with an account of Schoenberg's epic orchestral cantata Gurrelieder that would stand proud on any international platform. Gurrelieder is a pivotal piece in its composer's life and in the history of music - but for that reason, not easily placed. In form it prevaricates between a song cycle and an operatic abstract. In language it looks back to Brahms and Wagner but sickens for the new, experimental world beyond tonality that Schoenberg would be mapping out 20 years later. A good performance needs to register a sense of culmination and of transformation: of a score that takes the goal-oriented logic of key signatures as far as it can go, and then some more. And Abbado's performance was very good, encompassing the vast scale of the writing (Schoenberg had to invent 48- stave manuscript paper to accommodate it) with no sacrifice of detail. His soloists were superb - with Jane Eaglen and Thomas Moser as the lovers, Mariana Lipovsek a magnificently purposeful wood-dove, and the legendary Hans Hotter doing his party-piece in the spoken narration. The Festival Chorus, beefed up with professionals from London and the Arnold Schoenberg Choir from Austria, was infinitely stronger than in the War Requiem. And what the Jugendorchester lacked in finesse, they made up in richness of texture and passionate playing that positively beamed with the joy of late-Romantic excess.

The two Brahms Piano Concertos Andras Schiff gave at the Usher Hall on Thursday could have done with some of that. It was unquestionably beautiful playing from an artist who takes nothing in the notation for granted, but a touch dry of the juice that oils the works. Kurt Sanderling's tempi were awesomely slow, to the point where, in the 1st Concerto, pulse and motivation vanished and the whole ensemble frayed. Not such a great night for the Philharmonia, although the 2nd Concerto held together better.

Finally, some late news from the South: John Eliot Gardiner's semi-staging of Leonore (the first-try Fidelio) at the Proms last weekend. With firm, lean, youthful voices like Christiane Oelze and Hillevi Martinpelto, it was an Event but done perversely in the round, with Gardiner in the middle of the arena, the instruments encircling him, and the singers running (literally) from microphone to microphone around the outside. No doubt it was meant to democratise the vocal sound, but with the result that everyone caught a little but not a lot: in my case, four notes out of 10. It also meant that intimate duets were stretched across the orchestra, with the participants 200ft apart. As almost always with the Proms, I wish I'd stayed at home and listened on the radio.

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