Edinburgh International Festival review: Chamber Music Soundscapes Week 1

Scotsman classical music critic Ken Waltonon the Edinburgh International Festival’s chamber music concertos, which can either be experienced online or live in the city centre

Charismatic tenor Nicky Spence and pianist Malcolm Martineau.

Whether by accident or design, the decision to open the first week of this virtual Festival’s Chamber Music Soundscapes with charismatic tenor Nicky Spence and pianist Malcolm Martineau (****) was bang on target.

Shakespeare is the theme, his words expressed in musical settings ranging from post-Reformation Purcell to the modern jazz idiom of John Dankworth. Whatever the mode, whatever the vibe, Spence delivers each with a genuine and engaging charm: a squeeze of sauce to sharpen the edge of Quilter’s “Blow, blow thou winter wind; the golden warmth of Purcell’s “If Music be the food of Love; a touch of visual humour to animate Wolf’s “Lied des transferierten Zettel”; even the belligerent razzmatazz of Peter Dickinson’s “Hark, hark, the lark”.

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To roll out this programme as an uninterrupted sequence, facilitated by the absence of a live audience, and with the focus on the artists sharpened by a darkened backdrop, was to inaugurate a distinctive flavour for this incremental digital series. The sound quality is excellent, the camera work without gimmick but sensitive to interpretational thought. This Scots duo, in music also by Schubert, Haydn and the intriguing Alex Woolf (his pugnacious Three Tempestuous Songs, written especially for Spence) among others, find little trouble conveying their natural conviviality and personality.

The series’ second recital is a very different conversation, the cello-piano duo of Philip Higham and Susan Tomes (****) engaging in a ruminative coupling of Beethoven and Debussy sonatas, before lightening the tone with a dessert platter of Nadia Boulanger, Martinů and Suk.

Beethoven’s Cello Sonata in C is the first of the two Op 102 sonatas written in 1815 during a troubled period for the composer. Higham and Tomes conjure up an expectant dreaminess in the opening Andante, which neatly anticipates the change of gear to the ensuing Allegro vivace. There are moments here, and in the final movement, where the piano seems a shade under-projected, possibly a conscious preference on Tomes’ part.

In Debussy’s forward-looking 1915 Sonata, there is greater bullishness between the pair, perfect in negotiating the major-minor tussle of the opening Prologue and firing up the pugnacious rhythmic dynamism of the finale.

Plenty more French sensuality in Nadia Boulanger’s charming Three Pieces, the first a dreamy, oscillating reverie, the second a continuous modal thread marked by typically French canonic interplay, the third a deliciously capricious flirtation.

Martinu’s lugubrious Nocturne (the second of a set of four) acts as a haunting, poignant interlude before the champagne fizz of Suk’s airy Serenade No 3, the perfect end to an affable recital.

There have been remarkable solo performances during this unconventional Festival. The filmed context seems to suit that, close mobile camera shots probing into the eyes of the individual and illuminating, against atmospheric backdrops, a normally more distant experience for the audience. No exception in violist Scott Dickinson’s radiant, all-consuming performance of Sally Beamish’s Ariel for solo viola, which serves as a poignant appetiser for the key work in the programme, Mendelssohn’s popular Octet, played by Members of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra (****).

And what a keenly spirited, impeccably balanced account of the Mendelssohn this is. The internal rapport is its strength, the conversational emphases thrown around to dizzying delight, but held firm by overarching symbiosis. The inner movements don’t quite live up to the scintillating perfection and affirmative resolve of the outer ones, but a summery charm is ever-present.

Spellbinding consistency is pianist Steven Osborne’s (*****) watchword. His solo recital, embracing Schubert, Rachmaninov and Beethoven delivers nothing less. In Schubert’s Impromptu in F minor he offers a deliciously passive awakening, its lyrical elasticity supported by easeful sculpting of the whole.

A miscellany of Rachmaninov miniatures hold their own fascination - the meditative meandering of Fragments, the hearty flamboyance (astonishingly Grainger-like) of the Piano Piece in A flat, or the chant-like tranquility of Nunc Dimittis (from All-Night Vigil). But in the overall context, they provide yet more mental preparation for the intellectual high ground of Beethoven’s Sonata, the C minor Op 111.

This final Beethoven sonata has been a feature of several recent Osborne recitals, but in every case his magisterial command of its enigmatic subtleties and mountainous peaks never fails to excite; even in this instance, where momentary splashes surface at the height of the opening movement. The emergence of the final theme and variations restore a perfect equilibrium, and an ultimately distinguished interpretation.

The final contribution of the first week fell to Members of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra (****), clarinettist Maximiliano Martin and a string quartet led by Stephanie Gonley, whose programme is bookended by the disarming, gently-spiced harmonies of Glazunov’s Reverie Orientale and the operatic frolics of Weber’s Clarinet Quintet.

Included midway is a charming curiosity, Rebecca Clarke’s Prelude, Allegro and Pastorale for clarinet and viola. Clarke was a composer/violist born in Harrow in 1886, who settled in America, where she died in 1979. Her music is an aromatic amalgam of Bartókian playfulness and mild astringency, with the odd hint of English pastoralism, which Martin and violist Felix Tanner communicate with assertive empathy.

A quiescent valediction segues perfectly into the Weber, the virtuous refinement of the opening bars soon cast aside as Martin’s capricious clarinet gives full vent to the work’s truly wicked intentions. A stirring end to the opening week.

All Chamber Music Soundscapes to date can be viewed on www.eif.co.uk, or listened to live each weekday in Princes Street Gardens.

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