EIF reviews: Phaedra/Minotaur
Phaedra / Minotaur ****
Lyceum Theatre, until 20 August
There are some theatrical moments that stay with you for years to come, and halfway through Minotaur, one of those arrives. We’ve already been swept up in Phaedra’s mis-placed passion during the first half of this arresting double bill, but if the stakes were already high, they got even higher in the second half – literally.
After a passionate but ultimately saddening duet between dancers Jonathan Goddard (Theseus) and Isabel Lubach (Ariadne), a figure appears at the top of a red paint-spattered climbing wall. It’s Tommy Franzen, peering down at the bereft woman below and about to shake things up. As he crosses the 20-foot high wall, up and down and back and forth, in a display of strength and grace, we’re utterly mesmerised.
It’s a scene worth singling out, but in actuality this entire evening of Greek myth is replete with drama and top-notch performances. In the first half, mezzo-soprano Christine Rice is almost bent double with inappropriate desire for her stepson, Hippolytus, and we can feel her shame in every note. Theatre director Deborah Warner and choreographer Kim Brandstrup have pulled the very best out of this talented cast, and injected no small amount of humanity into these mythical characters.
Ichiko Aoba ****
Whether she liked it or not, Japanese singer/guitarist Ichiko Aoba had been hearing bagpipes all day since arriving in Edinburgh. She playfully mimicked their skirl – the most strident sound to pass her lips in the course of this fragrant concert, at which she was accompanied by a string quintet from the Scottish Chamber Orchestra.
Her light, breathy vocals inhabited a pretty, hypnotic folk pop realm, redolent of Francoise Hardy, Astrud Gilberto or Scotland’s Isobel Campbell, while she emanated a demure serene presence, tempered with a Björk-like gamine eccentricity, which captured the very mixed audience in the palm of her hand. Her own plangent guitar picking was complemented by the almost retro romantic settings of the strings.
For non-Japanese speakers, the lyrics were an enchanting mystery, inspired apparently by her dreams. There was a brief pivot to a more plaintive tone with trembling backing, before she returned to the gossamer delicacy with a timeless tune, like a smitten song in an old musical, accompanied by hand gestures and wilting strings. There was a blithe sweetness to one number, introduced as a new song, before she finished up with the dainty reverie of her recent single, Space Orphans.
Albrecht Mayer & Friends *****
“Have fun!” chuckled Bavarian oboist Albrecht Mayer as a sign-off to one of his witty spoken introductions in his recital with three string-playing colleagues. A lot of fun it all was – both for listeners, and evidently for the quartet of players too. The concert’s title was spot-on: there was noticeable warmth and a sense of support and enjoyment on stage, one that spread out quickly into the audience.
The foursome’s opening Britten Phantasy Quartet showed off Mayer’s gloriously velvety, agile playing brilliantly, and he piped brightly on top of the sharply etched textures in the Mozart F major Oboe Quartet that followed. Mayer’s string-playing colleagues got their own chances to shine after the interval, first violist Liisa Randalu in an intensely expressive Elegy by the teenage Britten, then violinist Diana Tishchenko and cellist István Várdai in a hilariously over-the-top set of variations on God Save the King by Joseph Ghys that mined just about every virtuoso technique that strings can supply. To end, Mayer rather naughtily compared their closing Moeran Fantasy Quartet to cucumber sandwiches (a subtle and acquired taste). Their account, however, was vivid, confident and – yes – a lot of fun. And their informal yet informative spoken introductions showed others around the International Festival just how it should be done.
London Symphony Orchestra: the Road to Turangalîla *****
They might have been billed (and charged) as two separate concerts, but Friday night’s Usher Hall performances – one at 6pm, the other at 8pm – were really one grand, mega-event that answered the question: what do you pair with Messiaen’s mighty, monumental Turangalîla-Symphony? If you’re Simon Rattle and the LSO, you go for a stand-alone concert charting the sounds and trends that led up to that huge, all-consuming masterpiece. That meant a brief Fanfare from La péri by Messiaen’s teacher Paul Dukas, a world away from The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, and given a gloriously rich, sonorous account by the LSO brass. Milhaud’s jazz-infused La création du monde ticked along breezily, though sound was a little muddy – maybe down to the players being split across the stage in a large hall.
But Rattle blazed through a searing, joyful La mer, in which detail was everything: in the balance between Debussy’s panoply of jostling-for-attention themes, the minutest tempo fluctuations to bring expressive meaning, and merest swelling in a cello accompaniment to the composer’s hymn-like perorations. Though Rattle was surprisingly reserved in his gestures – perhaps saving his energy for the main event to come later in the evening – it was still breathtakingly powerful, and showed the sonic marvels that the LSO can achieve.
London Symphony Orchestra: Turangalîla *****
Never mind grabbing a quick sandwich on the Usher Hall steps in the gap between 6pm and 8pm concerts, which most of the LSO musicians seemed to be doing. It felt like they’d had several espressos each by the time it came to unleashing their Messiaen Turangalîla-Symphony in the later evening performance. It erupted into the hall in an all-devouring barrage of sound from the immense orchestra, as a visceral shock to the body, but with teeming, telling detail, too. It’s music that clearly runs through conductor Simon Rattle’s blood – he made his seminal recording of the piece way back in 1987, and not much has changed in his view of the piece since then, save savouring the LSO’s sonic majesty to offer almost 3D perspectives on Messiaen’s multi-layered textures, and leaving the orchestra’s magnificent brass to do their thing – which they did, magnificently. Pianist Peter Donohoe was Rattle’s pianist back in 1987, and brought overwhelming power and piercing insight, as well as some well-used fists to batter the keyboard’s extremes. In fact, Messiaen’s whole ‘gamelan’ of tuned percussion out front glittered resplendently, and Cynthia Millar whooped and soared flamboyantly on the ondes Martenot. It was overwhelming, as much spiritually and emotionally as musically. Just one niggle: for a festival out to make unfamiliar music accessible and approachable, why no printed programme?
Matthew Herbert ****
The horse which infamously takes centre stage in English composer and electronic producer Matthew Herbert’s new album – also named The Horse – was not immediately in evidence during the work’s premiere live performance at Edinburgh International Festival. The compact Queen’s Hall stage contained an orchestra of around ten and a conductor, Herbert and another musician manipulating what we heard through laptops, and a pair of musician-performers enacting slow, ritualistic actions around the stage.
Yet the horse was in everything, its skeleton used to produce much of the sound we heard, with the musicians shifting from one station to another with each movement of sound to bang a deep, resonant drum sound constructed from its bones, blow into a bone flute to produce an eerie, reedy sound, or rattle ribs around. Under a sinister red light, something happens in a bowl of water, although it wasn’t entirely certain what.
Without any live projection of proceedings, some of the finer aspects of the performance were difficult to see in detail. Yet sonically, it hit like a wave, building through the most primitive analogue suggestions of music from a time before memory to a techno-shamanic rave. In order for us to have played early music, Herbert has said of the work, something will have needed to die; it felt like a work designed to span millennia in 90 minutes.