Edinburgh Festival

Opening Concert

Usher Hall, Edinburgh

Hazel Rowland

four stars

THE decision to open the Edinburgh International Festival’s first concert in 1947 with a Haydn symphony seems rather unambitious. Haydn’s symphonies only require a chamber orchestra – tiny in comparison to the mighty forces required by the likes of Mahler, Bruckner and Wagner. But if 2017’s opening concert, which reprised Haydn’s Symphony No. 94 in G, the “Surprise”, from the 1947 programme, is anything to go by, size is no determiner of magnificence.

For with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and conductor Pablo Heras-Casado, you could easily hear the range of colours in Haydn’s symphony. After the first movement’s stately but delicate slow introduction, the strings merrily bounced along in the main vivace section, before Heras-Casado expertly captured the stormy menace at the movement’s centre.

The third movement had a joyful bombasticity, while the finale had a spritely excitement from the outset. Heras-Casado did well to bring the volume down at the start of the second movement, in preparation for the sudden entrance of the timpani – the famous “surprise” that the work gets its nickname from. Sadly, in the Usher Hall’s large space, the power of this moment was weakened, though the audience found it amusing nonetheless.

Mendelssohn’s "Symphony-Cantata" Lobgesang could be another controversial choice, as contemporary audiences may find its celebration of German Protestantism off-putting. Yet it was impossible not to be swept up by the glorious Edinburgh Festival Chorus, whose singing ranged for radiance to haunting quiet. Soprano Dorothea Roschmann matched them with her full-bodied sound, while tenor Werner Gura’s expressive singing expertly portrayed a moment of angst and fear. After a heavenly choral from the chorus, the final return of full orchestra and chorus was utterly redemptive – an uplifting close, whatever your religious persuasion.