After the visits of several distinguished guest orchestras, as the Festival drew to a close, Edinburgh's Usher Hall returned its platform to a native group, the Royal Scottish National Orchestra. The festival spirit though continued with the appearance of American guest conductor David Robertson. Mr Robertson, who studied at the Royal Academy of Music in London and is known for his interpretations of English music, brought us one piece of this genre, one from his native California and one from New England, in a varied programme which ably demonstrated the width of his range. He showed a charming and gracious demeanour to performers, soloist and audience alike throughout this demanding concert, indicating finally after taking several curtain calls that he wished to retire to slake his thirst!
Under his baton emerged a shimmery, silken and characteristically West-coast sound, as the RSNO opened the programme with Charles Ives's Unanswered Question. As with Simon Rattle on Thursday with the Berliner Philharmoniker, the two opening works were segued into each other, here the Unanswered Question with Morton Feldman's Coptic Light, which had the effect of illuminating both and bringing a pleasing lightness of touch. The entire first half was very slow; gentle, graceful, serene with a diffuse sound world. Morton Feldman was a leading musical and cultural figure of the American West Coast in the 1950s and 60s, being closely associated with John Cage (whose music has been performed recently at the BBC Proms this year) but also with practitioners of other art forms such as the painter Mark Rothko: one of Feldman's seminal works is Rothko Chapel, and there is a similarity of mood in their output. Coptic Light is a shorter piece and – at about thirty minutes - more practical for concert performance, but from the same compositional period. It's quiet, subtle and expansive, but with a slightly melancholy undertow pervading it.
After the interval, the Edinburgh International festival's music programme closed as it had opened: with a big choral work. This was a more straightforward performance than the opening with Delius' Mass of Life: an exciting and dynamic account of the well-known 'Belshazzar's Feast'.
This picked up a recent Festival theme in that it echoed the theme of vengeance in James McMillan's short opera, Clemency, which I recently reviewed. Walton's Israelites however celebrate with shouts of joyous triumph rather than MacMillan's Abraham having an ambiguous struggle with the avenging angels. This thematic connection was highlighted by the use in the programme of Rembrandt’s painting, Belshazzar's Feast, showing the disembodied hand descending to write in Hebrew on the wall of the King's palace.
The brass playing was especially good; where a 'God of Brass' is referred to, there was brass in the gods, a musical pun which worked well in the large space of the Usher Hall. This enjoyable performance with the popular local Festival Chorus received a rousing reception from a generous audience which mixed locals and festival-goers.
Edinburgh International Festival, Usher Hall, Sat 1st September
Neal Davies - baritone, Edinburgh Festival Chorus, David Robertson, RNSO
The Unanswered Question – Charles Ives
Coptic Light – Morton Feldman
Belshazzar's Feast - William Walton