EIF music reviews: Royal Scottish National Orchestra | A Grand Night For Singing | Steven Osborne

Against the odds, wet weather and unlikely venues have made the EIF’s return to live music feel even more magical

Pianist Steven Osborne

Against the relative sterility of life being conducted largely online for the past 18 months, we desperately needed some person-to-person theatre in our lives. How refreshing, then, to find a double dose of it filtering through the opening week of the Edinburgh International Festival’s classical music programme. On the one hand, the Royal Scottish National Orchestra (****), with consummate narration by veteran actor Dame Harriet Walter, transported us to the magical world of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, courtesy of Mendelssohn’s complete Overture and Incidental Music. In contrasting vein, A Grand Night for Singing (****), was all about the razzmatazz of American music theatre, with the entire focus on the heroic show-stopping partnership of Richard Rogers and Oscar Hammerstein II in a UK refit - by singer Kim Criswell with musical director Wayne Marshall - of Broadway director Walter Bobbie’s original “revue musical”, which premiered in New York in 1993.

That both these events happened in a Hollywood-scale open-sided tent on the playing fields of Edinburgh Academy Junior School, the former battling manfully against a good old Edinburgh drenching, simply added to the curious theatre that is this year’s hybrid Festival. In truth, rather than ruin the scurrying string delicacies that feature early on in Mendelssohn’s filigree score, the unceasing riot of raindrops bouncing off the taut tarpaulin roof had a strangely enhancing effect, rather like industrial-scale fairy dust. Nor did it seem to bother RSNO music director Thomas Søndergård, who conducted a seamless performance that sourced colourful symphonic unity in the set pieces, and expertly-timed underscores to the calming perception of Walter’s sweetly-spun narration.

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Even the amplification, judicious and subtle as it was, and clearly necessary in carrying every detail to all corners of the auditorium, was an acceptable eccentricity. Minor sound dislocations inevitably occurred, like the odd single horn note exploding with undue electrical assistance. But the same horn was meltingly sensuous in its mellifluous Nocturne solo.

There wasn’t much for vocal soloists Rowan Pierce and Kathryn Rudge to do, but when they did contribute, along with a reduced offstage choir of spirit-like voices from Aidan Oliver’s Edinburgh Festival Chorus, the effect was warm and enchanting. There was an animated completeness to a performance that made an hour or so of music seem like so much more, not to mention an awareness that the nearby Royal Botanic Gardens might have been the perfect setting for a full theatrical production, though not in this weather.

Where the Mendelssohn had sophistication and poise, A Grand Night For Singing let rip at every opportunity, taking us to lesser-known corners of the Rogers and Hammerstein output than much-loved favourites from Carousel, Oklahoma!, South Pacific, The Sound of Music or The King and I. New to me was Pipe Dream (based on two Steinbeck novels) with its melancholic pre-echoes of Lloyd Webber; and Cinderella, a treasure trove of golden Rogers melodies.

But there was freshness in every moment, generated by pianist/director Marshall and his smooth multi-textured sextet in economically refreshed scorings (a transformative jazzed-up Kansas City and a natty swing-style Honey Bun), and given visual excitement through Kim Criswell’s slick, never-a dull-moment concert staging.

Like every good Broadway cast, the magic lay in the personalities. Opera-trained Danielle de Niese proved a magnetic prima donna, gifted with key lyric moments that she hugged and caressed. Criswell, herself, cut a magisterial, matronly presence, in stark contrast to the full-on showgirl package that is actor-singer-dancer Anna-Jane Casey, whose all-action, high-kicking performance of It’s Me (from Me and Juliet) ended the only way it could, with her doing the splits. Stylish performances, too, from the adaptable Damian Humbley and cool Scots-born operatic baritone Richard Morrison.

It needed their collective energy and wit to turn what was effectively a potpourri of disparate numbers into a meaningful sequence, and what began as a slow-burner soon gathered the heat and charisma necessary to transport us on a captivating journey of reminiscence and discovery. Topical ad libs helped.

Back in the city centre at Old College Quad, where a scaled-down version of the Edinburgh Academy tent is playing host to what would normally constitute the Festival’s daily Queen’s Hall series, pianist Steven Osborne (****) produced his very own version of a musical journey, turning what might have seemed a arbitrary collection of pieces into a telling emotional sequence, albeit complete with invasive urban soundtrack.

What, for instance, have Schubert’s Impromptu D935 No 1 (more architecturally robust than its trifling title might suggest) and 20th century American avant-gardist George Crumb’s more introspective Processional have in common that would inspire Osborne to segue one into the other?

Osborne’s persuasive delivery answered the question. From the comfortable familiarity of the Schubert, its eloquent poeticism thoughtfully held in check by Osborne’s intellectual probing, the Crumb emerged like a ghostly afterthought. It, too, supports lyrical thought, but here as fragmentations thrown up against obsessive rhythmic repetition and a dynamic range operating between barely audible and pulverising declamation.

It prepared the way for Tippett’s frenetic Piano Sonata No 2, a work echoing the composer’s then (1962) preoccupation with his opera King Priam, and which bears the same electrically charged impetuosity. From the heraldic rhetoric of the opening and ensuing flurry of ideas - including Osborne’s addition of foot-stamping as a substitute for Tippett’s original idea of hitting the piano with the fist - that incessantly collide, to an utterly exhaustive conclusion, this performance elicited inner meaning from apparent outward chaos.

For its time, Beethoven’s last Piano Sonata (No 32 in C minor) must have thrown up the same challenging questions. Osborne, with the disconcerting echoes of Tippett still ringing in our ears, resurrected that sense of exploring the unknown. It’s a piece he has performed numerous times, but still finds ways to shock us, thrill us, even amuse us - that euphoric boogie-woogie moment in the second movement. Pure theatre.

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