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International Festival: Reviews

Hilliard Ensemble

FASCINATING POWERS: Polish-Hungarian pianist Piotr Anderszewski works with singular logic, so exciting to hear.
FASCINATING POWERS: Polish-Hungarian pianist Piotr Anderszewski works with singular logic, so exciting to hear.

Hilliard Ensemble

Greyfriars Kirk, Edinburgh

Kate Molleson

I wouldn't have missed this concert for all the festival: the last chance to hear the Hilliard Ensemble in Scotland before they permanently disband at the end of December. This most epochal of vocal quartets is bowing out after 40 phenomenally successful years in the business and before their trademark sound begins to falter too much. Much of that sound comes down to David James, the group's countertenor and remaining original member. Inevitably, his voice doesn't soar as effortlessly and robustly as it once did; the most florid moments in this programme showed the sign of so many hard-working years.

The programme was classic Hilliard: a 15th-century mass and a set of German songs composed less than a decade ago. The mass was Guillaume Dufay's four-voice setting of the secular song L'homme Arme, which is becoming the recurrent theme tune of this year's International Festival.

The Hilliards attacked its counterpoint with urgency - they drove each movement at pace and at times the lack of dynamic flux felt unrelenting. I wonder, too, whether the detail carried to the back of Greyfriars, where anything quick-shifting tends to get mushy.

Instead of performing the mass movements straight the Hilliards interspersed each one with Werner Heider's mysterious Sechs Gesange Fur Den Frieden (Six Hymns For Peace). They tackled unblinkingly the eerie passages of whispering, speaking and clapping; the harmonies, spare and murky, were delivered with cool precision. But it was the encore that was most touching: an excerpt from I Went To The House But Did Not Enter, the wonderful Heiner Goebbels music theatre piece that the Hilliards premiered in Edinburgh in 2008. This music still sums up the best of them: beautifully mesmeric, dryly playful.

Piotr Anderszewski

Queen's Hall, Edinburgh

Kate Molleson

Piotr Anderszewski launched into the first work of his programme - Bach's mighty B-minor French Overture - with the kind of muscle you might expect in Liszt or Rachmaninov, not a baroque dance suite. There is a singular and fascinating logic to everything that this Polish-Hungarian pianist does. He is so immersed in his playing it sometimes feels intrusive to be listening. But it's exciting to hear someone who so radically bypasses all received notions of interpretation - who doesn't moderate his emotions into any kind of palatable middle ground.

And so the broad Overture sounded improvisatory, stormy, even brash - I love how emphatic Anderszewski makes his counterpoint. The inner movements were as tender as the out ones were brutal; I have never heard the Queen's Hall audience so quiet as it was during this noble Sarabande.

Anderszewski brought out the gruff volatility in Schumann's Novellette Op 21 No 8 - a work written in the frustrating year before Schumann was allowed to marry Clara and whose intense longing is laced with an anger that Anderszewski did not shy away from. After the interval, Karol Szymanowski's Metopes Op 29 introduced a whole new colour palette. These three strange pieces (Island Of The Sirens, Calypso and Nausicaa) use showers of notes to conjure up Homer's mythical landscapes, out of which Anderszewski picked out vivid characters and images.

The recital ended back where it started: with Bach, this time the Sixth English Suite. Again Anderszewski pounded through the motoric outer movements with an attack that was close to ruthless. Again the Gavottes were whispered and haunting and again the Sarabande - one of Bach's most breathtaking - was deeply poetic.

Escaping War

The Hub

Mary Brennan

It wasn't only Fred and Ginger who faced the music and danced. During the wartime days of the 20th century, people went dancing as an antidote to the glooms around them. The short opening film that sets out this context is aptly called A Breathing Space: a nicely-judged collage of archive clips that range from Britain at play to honest footage of wounded soldiers undergoing therapy. It's at this point that the value of music and dancing, as welcome aids to keeping spirits high, enters the hall. And not just on-screen. Popular songs of the time - sung by Emma Morwood and Chris Elliot, with Andrew Brown on piano - get everyone in the mood to step out with Belgian company Bal Moderne who have devised two witty join-in choreographies that are rooted in the 1940s but have a modern twist that cuts through any nostalgia - because this isn't intending to follow in the footsteps of war-torn times.

Instead, as the Doors demand to know the way to the next whisky bar (Kurt Weill's Alabama Song), willing hoofers are given a teacup apiece and guided through a routine where marching steps lead everyone into floor patterns that resemble Busby Berkeley - something participants can see for themselves when their filmed efforts are projected at the end. When Edwin Starr bellows out "War - what is it good for?", it's time for the Black Bottom Waltz and a swaggering groove that hip-sways from charleston to jive and then goes clubbing. And somehow, the feel-good factor that kept people dancing during the war fills the room and history itself feels mighty real.

Bal Moderne ease everyone on to the learning curve, students from Broughton High Dance School help the newbies keep pace.

Repeated today and tomorrow)

War Requiem

Usher Hall, Edinburgh

KEITH BRUCE

It seems more recently, but apparently it is a decade since Britten's great scoring of the Latin Mass and the poetry of Wilfred Owen was performed at the Edinburgh Festival. Whatever the gap, it would have been an omission had it not appeared in Jonathan Mills's final First World War centenary-marking programme.

Of course there was a very different group of lads in the NYCoS National Boys Choir, who sang it last time, and the Festival Chorus has done a fair bit of growing up over the past 10 years as well, but more of them anon.

Britten's War Requiem is great music at least partly because it is a careful schematic success. The nationality of the soloists was broadly adhered to here: soprano Albina Shagimuratova from Tashkent (in Uzbekistan these days, but who knows the ambition of Vladimir Putin?), English tenor Toby Spence and German baritone Matthias Goerne.

The men perform the poetry, supported by a chamber ensemble; the soprano, chorus and boys sing the Mass, but the ingredients become increasingly intermingled and overlap as the narrative unfolds.

Sir Andrew Davis was alive to every detail of that, both in the singing and the playing of the Philharmonia, almost, dare I say, to the detriment of the wider canvas at times, but oh, the glory of these details.

Goerne's was my favourite voice on stage but the most moving moment came as the choir's Lacrimosa paved the way for the soprano's second solo and Spence's rendition of Futility.

And of that trio, it was the chorus that made the night. Chorusmaster Christopher Bell can be as proud of them as he is of the Boys Choir.

This review appeared in later editions of yesterday's Herald

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