Music review: EIF 70th Anniversary Celebration Concert

The BBC SSO
The BBC SSO
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It was appropriate for the final concert event of this landmark Edinburgh International Festival to forego the usual heavyweight choral/symphonic extravaganza and instead combine music from past programmes with reflective film clips. All the right ingredients were there: the BBC SSO in sparkling form under one of the most reliable conducting hands in the business, Martyn Brabbins; and high above them, a massive triple screen projection of old Festival footage, narrated by Jamie MacDougall, and featuring reminiscences by those whose memories go back even to 1947.

Edinburgh International Festival 70th Anniversary Celebration Concert ****

Usher Hall, Edinburgh

Musically, the mix of ingredients was bonkers: bits and pieces ranging from the acerbic satire of Shostakovich (who famously visited and featured in the 1962 Festival) to the perfumed waltzes of Johann Strauss, via Arthur Bliss’ couthy 1956 tribute to the Festival city, his overture “Edinburgh”, all of which, under ordinary circumstances, would have made little cohesive sense.

Yet a series of colourful and often deeply moving performances proved to be the icing on the birthday cake. Bliss’ overture – a crafty distillation of sentimental southerner’s-eye-view Scots references, from stoical psalm tunes to giddy reels and horn whoops – offered a homely start, its comforting nostalgia instantly blown away by Shostakovich’s Three Interludes from Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk District, complete with vicious balcony-sited battery of cornets and trumpets.

Next, the balmy sensuousness of Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis, the dense opening chord a clear hint of the gorgeous string playing about to unfold. Then a tribute to Kathleen Ferrier’s early festival appearances, in which Scots mezzo soprano Karen Cargill performed three of Mahler’s Rückert-Lieder, injecting each with the rich mahogany tone that distinguishes Cargill as one of today’s front-ranking singers.

Ned Bigham’s Staffa – a festival premiere that teamed the composer with visual artist Gerry Fox, and featured drone footage of the Hebridean island and Fingal’s Cave screened above live orchestra – was more trundling background wash than genuinely vital concert work. No danger of that, however, in the SSO’s ensuing engagement with Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé, Suite No 2, an effervescent world of colour and nuance; nor in the swaggering glitz of Strauss’ Emperor Waltz and, for an encore, the Tritsch-Tratsch Polka.

If the component parts were slick, the continuity of the evening wasn’t always. Did the orchestra really have to tune so frequently? Nonetheless, a sparkling event to sign off a resoundingly successful 70th anniversary edition of the Edinburgh International Festival.