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Review: Festival Music, RSNO,Usher Hall, Edinburgh

Five stars

It appeared a sober way to begin an Edinburgh International Festival that takes its theme from the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War, but the reality was a colourful, idiosyncratic 20th century take on the overture/concerto/symphony concert formula.

Some of that colour appeared in the most surprising places, like the third of Schoenberg's Five Pieces for Orchestra, almost heretically impressionistic for the father of the Second Viennese School. He was by far the longest lived, but the other two featured composers, Debussy and Scriabin, were contemporaries with the latter's soundworld nearer the Frenchman's but an effective bridge between the two. Looked at as a concerto, pianist Kirill Gerstein shared the solo flourishes with a worldless chorus and the mighty Usher Hall organ in a score for which eight double basses is never enough, and which included some beautifully measured brass playing on the way the abrupt, stunning climax.

Under conductor Oliver Knussen, the orchestra were on top form across all sections and the Edinburgh Festival Chorus in fine voice, particularly on Debussy's demanding Le Martyre de Saint Sebastien where they partnered soprano Claire Booth, whose pure tone had just a suggestion of chanson to perfectly suit the material. It is a queer fish, this collaboration with Gabriele d'Annunzio, the writer's text and Debussy's score, especially the orchestral interludes, sometimes operating quite separately, but it is nothing if not colourful, and symphonic in scale and some structural ways, ending with its own hymn of joyful praise. It is that finale, from Zoe Kitson's plangent cor anglais through the echoes of early liturgical music for the chorus, that makes the work worth the very fine performance it had here.

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