Edinburgh International Festival round-up: Catriona Morison & Malcolm Martineau | The Maxwell Quartet | Mark Padmore & Paul Lewis

The audience buzz is missing, but there is an intimacy in these online concerts impossible to capture in a hall, writes Ken Walton
Catriona Morison and Malcolm Martineau PIC: Ryan Buchanan / EIFCatriona Morison and Malcolm Martineau PIC: Ryan Buchanan / EIF
Catriona Morison and Malcolm Martineau PIC: Ryan Buchanan / EIF

Whether taking pot luck with the weather to hear these daily Chamber Music Soundscape concerts relayed live to Princes Street Gardens, or tuning into YouTube at home with a good set of headphones and a mug of coffee, or even capitalising on both options, the verdict remains the same for a series that has filled the daytime void feared after Covid-19 put paid to this year’s live-audience Festival action: It’s been a godsend.

In fact, special intimacies emerge that you don’t always perceive from attending the traditional Queen’s Hall concerts: subtle close-ups that reveal, through a mischievous smirk or a slight misting of the performers’ eyes, more of the innermost thoughts that drive a particular inflexion or mood. They were plentiful in Monday’s delicately self-assured recital by award-winning Scots mezzo soprano Catriona Morison and venerable pianist Malcolm Martineau (****).

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What began with the purest of pure Purcell – three songs initiated by a beautifully understated ‘Music for a while’, in which Martineau not only shadowed Morison’s easeful simplicity like a mindreader, but also extracted a counterpoint of silken melodic threads – set the scene perfectly for a fascinating trio of songs by the 19th century singer/composer Pauline Viardot, each hewn with Schumann-esque shapeliness, but emotionally uplifted by radiant injections of Wagner.

Morison’s magnetic composure extended to a midpoint selection from Schumann’s Myrthen Lieder, Op 25, before lightening the tone via songs by Lewis Murphy, Benjamin Britten and a sweet-scented arrangement of ‘Ye Banks and Braes’ by Scots composer Claire Liddell.

The Maxwell Quartet (*****) cut a perfect vision of animated ­synergy. With matching beards and tan footwear signalling mild rebellion against the standard all-black attire, they looked pretty cool. Their musical persona is a reflection of that image: stylish homogeneity seasoned with a splash of interpretative anarchy. Such distinctive ­personality informed Tuesday’s opening performance of Haydn’s String Quartet in F, Op74 No2, its finely tailored Classicism enlivened with light-hearted repartee and risky spontaneity.

It set a high bar for the remainder of the programme, which shifted to present-day works by the charismatic Anna Meredith and Dutch composer Joey Roukens. Meredith’s pithy ‘Short Tribute to Teenage Fanclub’ – written especially for the Maxwell Quartet – acted as both gear-changing interlude and self-contained caprice.

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A deluge of interlocking scales gradually acquire form through increased rhythmic punctuation, like a distilled representation of Teenage Fanclub’s characteristically shambolic charm, with the Quartet capturing its exuberant, subversive energy.Roukens’ Visions at Sea offered a calmer conclusion, though not without a ghostly sea shanty intervention – think Pirates of the Caribbean on extra rum – and vigorous minimalist apotheosis to counter the translucent tranquility and distant rumination of the outermost sections. It inspired another classy performance, one of mesmerising extremes and subtle finesse.

They say the wife always has the last word. Not so in Wednesday’s song recital by tenor Mark Padmore and pianist Paul Lewis (****) in which four artful songs by Clara Schumann functioned as warm-up to husband Robert’s demonstrative song cycle, Dichterliebe.

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Clara, principally recognised as a pianist, was no slouch as a composer, as the homely warmth of Volkslied and heated agitation of Lorelei served to illustrate. They were also indicative of the entrancing containment running through Padmore’s entire poetic delivery.

As such, this was a Dichterliebe that majored on inference rather than insistence. Padmore unfolded its narrative with contained passion, perhaps overly delicate at times, especially in the lower pitch range, but always with polished artistry and unflinching engagement. As, for instance, in ‘Ich grolle nicht’, its power concentrated in a slow-burning intensity rather than power-driven abandon.

And what a joy to hear Paul Lewis in this ­supportive role, giving gravitational support to Padmore’s airy ­authority, but equally sourcing expressive insights of his own.

So much of Saint-Saëns’ Sonata for Bassoon and Piano, Op 168, takes care of itself – the seamless lyrical flow, the whimsical acrobatics of the scherzando, and the self-contained composure of the finale where the pungency of the lower register announces its rasping presence. Add to that the personable charm of former SCO bassoonist Ursula Leveaux and pianist Malcolm Martineau (****) and the outcome on Thursday was enchanting.

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They ended with two dapper transcriptions by Leveaux herself: firstly capturing the sweetened sensitivities and liquid flow of Clara Schumann’s Three Romances, Op 22 (originally for violin); then in Mendelssohn’s Sonata Op 45 (originally for cello), a performance defined by its tasteful poeticism and silken virtuosity, though suppressed in its most effusive moments by the bassoon’s natural imbalance against the opulence of the piano writing.

It’s a pity that yesterday’s all-Beethoven finale featuring Paul Lewis and Members of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra (***), suffered sound distortion at the start of Lachner’s reduced arrangement of the Fourth Piano Concerto when the hitherto excellent recording quality took a momentary nosedive, emulating a ghostly echo chamber. It’s where the soloist’s opening gambit sets in motion a conversation informing the ultimate direction and mood of play.

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In a live scenario it wouldn’t have mattered, and with Lewis true to form, there was plenty to savour in his firm and incisive lead. But even then, erratic attacks within the string ensemble undermined the performance’s overall stability. Plenty of fine playing and illuminating touches, but an edginess that occasionally rocked the boat.

So let’s be thankful for the preceding Fantasy Op 77 for solo piano, its built-in volatility a source of explosive theatre for Lewis.

The soundscapes programme can be found at: www.eif.co.uk. Catch up with the performances on YouTube at: https://www.youtube.com/user/edinburghintfestival

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