Ken Walton: The best classical music of the Fringe

Classical zheng player Dong Yi

Classical zheng player Dong Yi

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From organ recitals and opera to a piano that’s strung back-to-front, the Fringe offers a host of colourful partnerships and peformances

From the classical music perspective, the Edinburgh Festival Fringe is probably best viewed from two perspectives: the myriad straight recitals and concerts that offer a less precious complement to the serious business of the International Festival classical programme; and perhaps more interestingly, those offbeat offerings that straddle the boundaries of the comedic, the experimental and the absurd.

Christopher Seed. Picture: Contributed

Christopher Seed. Picture: Contributed

The problem, as always, is trying to process the glut of information in the packed programme. Thankfully, there are plenty of the old Fringe favourites to help us make sense of things, such as the regular recital series at St Andrews and St George’s West, Canongate Kirk, the Royal Overseas League (ROSL), St Mark’s Unitarian Church, and a host of other cathedral and church venues, as well as the regular showcasing of young musicians by Live Music Now Scotland (daily, 8-30 August) at the National Museum of Scotland.

The scale of activity is nonetheless immense. Take the ROSL young artists series in its Edinburgh base at 100 Princes Street (9-29 August). Fifty concerts over three weeks, but set out in such a way that you can set your digestive clock by them – Bach at Breakfast, Beethoven at Lunchtime, Brahms at Teatime, Shostakovich Late, and so on.

The St Andrews and St George’s West series (9-30 August) is all about familiarity: artists whose faces are generally well-kent in these parts. Among them, saxophone-piano duo McKenzie Sawers trace the saxophone’s journey from its 19th century invention to the broad and eclectic repertoire it enjoys today in Saxophone – Evolution and Revolution! (10 August), and composer and flute member of The Whistlebinkies folk group, Eddie McGuire, teams up with Chinese classical zheng player Dong Yi for an intriguing cross-fertilisation of national styles (13 August).

It’s wonderful to see veteran Edinburgh pianist Colin Kingsley (11 August) still active at 90, playing music Mozart wrote when he was 22. And the extraordinary Stefan Zarzycki (15 & 20 August), who lost the full use of his right hand through focal dystonia, gives a complete recital with his left hand.

Look around the various venues, and the scope of music is ambitious. For instance, organ recitals tend to have a musty reputation, but if you’ve never heard Schoenberg’s Variations on a Recitative before, it’s the adventurous centrepiece of Tom Bell’s celebrity recital at St Giles’ Cathedral (12 August). And I’m drawn to Glasgow organist David Hamilton’s focus on Nikolaus Bruhns’ complete organ works (15 August), celebrating on the Canongate organ the 350th anniversary of the German composer’s birth. The story goes that Bruhns, an equally able violinist, often performed on that instrument while accompanying himself on the organ pedals with his feet. A Fringe act if ever there was one.

Another contemporary highlight will be Stockhausen’s Tierkreis (20 August), in a version for organ and percussion by Mark Spalding and Haworth Hodgkinson at Canongate, celebrating the work’s 40th anniversary.

Opera has its place, too, with Opera Bohemia’s tried and tested version of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly (24, 26 & 27 August) at St Andrews and St George’s, and Opera dei Lumi’s The Marriage of Figaro at Canongate Kirk (13 August), in a new production created for this summer’s Berwick Festival Opera season.

But if last year’s modern take on Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas by About Turn Theatre Company is anything to go by, its new production this year of Gluck’s Orpheus and Eurydice, which rockets the ancient classical tale into outer space, could well be a winner (14-29 August).

Call me old-fashioned, but I like my Fringe to be off the wall, so here are a couple of pointers towards one or two of this year’s zanier classical moments.

Firstly, there’s back-to-front pianist Christopher Seed. While most left-handers make do with specially reversed scissors, rulers, golf clubs or, in Paul McCartney’s case, the left-handed guitar, Seed has gone to great expense – £25,000 – to have a piano specially made that has been strung back-to-front. So, the top notes are at the far left, and the lowest to the right.

Now, I can see cosmetic reasons why this might be attractive to some people, such as fitting a grand piano into an awkward corner of a room and discovering that the lid opens into the wall. But in terms of playing a reverse-order keyboard, surely that would just mess with your mind?

Well, Seed has mastered it, and he explains how and why – “my strength is on my left side, so that’s where the melodies ought to be” – in a performance (Greyfriars Kirk, 
20 August & Stockbridge Parish Church, 24-29 August) which features music by Schubert and Tchaikovsky played as you’ve never seen it played before.

Stockbridge is also the venue for a politically-inspired audio-visual piece by Edinburgh-based composer and sound artist Matthew Collings. A Requiem for Edward Snowden (Stockbridge Parish Church, 20-22 August) uses electronic and acoustic sound and real-time visuals to explore current themes of privacy, inspired by the actions of the CIA whistleblower. It’s just one of a raft of new Scottish works, embracing music, theatre and dance, that have been created in recent years under the banner of Made in Scotland and which are being showcased at this year’s Fringe.

Also part of that series is PianoPiano (Broughton High, 22-23 August), a show created two years ago by the vivacious piano duo Hilary Brooks and Karen MacIver featuring original music that celebrates the achievements of pioneering women throughout history. Two girls, two grands: “it’s like watching two Oscar Petersons in frocks,” one critic observed.

Serious music combined with serious fun – sounds like Edinburgh in August.

• For a full list of classical music events at the Fringe, see www.edfringe.com

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