Edinburgh International Festival, classical round-up: a fantastic start to a very different festival

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Pianist Paul Lewis  - Mihaela Bodlovic 
Pianist Paul Lewis - Mihaela Bodlovic

The Edinburgh International Festival was born out of adversity, as an extravagantly joyous riposte to post-Second-World-War austerity. Now it faces a different sort of adversary in the form of the Covid-19 virus, which is much harder to defy because, as things stand, it rules out live performance for an audience.

Nevertheless the EIF is straining every nerve to reinvent itself in an online form. Like the Proms, it’s revisiting its own past with a filmed “celebration of the Festival City” and a survey of filmed classical music performances at the Usher and Queen’s Halls. But, unlike the Proms, the emphasis is squarely on newly created performance, filmed in imaginative ways.

The festival’s YouTube channel is now packed with videos of theatre and musical productions in different genres including folk, West African pop, and four classical performances, most of them “released” simultaneously on Saturday night.

This seemed an odd decision. Creating a sense of “liveness” is difficult online, and having an individual start time is a big step towards achieving it. But still, clicking on those YouTube links does take you to some good things. Among them is pianist Paul Lewis, who was due to be a featured artist at this year’s festival. He gives a performance of Beethoven’s Second Piano Concerto which is worlds away from the nervy intensity of someone like Igor Levit, but in its own way just as rewarding.

There’s a calm spaciousness about Lewis which catches the “Olympian” quality in Beethoven, and yet still allows for wit—as we saw in the high-spirited finale, in which he and the socially-distanced players of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra were perfectly matched.

Less immediately satisfying but intriguing in its own way was the Royal Scottish National Orchestra’s performance of Mahler’s Seventh Symphony, superbly paced by conductor Thomas Søndergård. The piece demands a vast orchestra including mandolin, an impossibility when orchestras have to be socially distanced, so they opted for a recent arrangement for chamber orchestra. The transparent sound of small forces was a boon in the shadowy Scherzo and the drowsy 2nd Nocturne, but the romping excess of the Finale felt sadly under-nourished.

The video of three early Mahler songs from the same orchestra worked much better, not least because of the presence of tremendous Scottish mezzo-soprano Karen Cargill.  The third song “I am lost to the world” demands a combination of rapt sublimity and matter-of-fact simplicity which is almost impossible to bring off, but she managed it.

Best of all these videos was the first in a series of “Lockdown Commissions”, a six-minute meditation for solo viola by Finnish conductor-turned-composer Esa-Pekka Salonen entitled “Objets trouvés”.

Beautifully played by Lawrence Power, it was a melancholy, rhapsodic flight of fancy over a subtly shifting drone background, which led back to its own starting point in a way that was satisfying precisely because it was unpredictable, and suggested lots of paths not taken. If future instalments are as good as this we are in for a treat.

For details of the EIF 2020 online programme visit www.eif.co.uk/whats-on

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