Festival Music

Des canyons aux etoiles . . .

Usher Hall, Edinburgh

Keith Bruce, five stars

AS the consequences of Britain departing from the EU continue to dominate the news, here was an eloquent artistic statement from the Edinburgh International Festival of current collaborative values: the city’s Scottish Chamber Orchestra, with its own superb first horn as one of the soloists, conducted by the BBC SSO’s German associate, performing a rarely-heard French classic work with a star French pianist and two further soloists on tuned percussion from Spain and Hungary.

Olivier Messiaen’s Des Canyons aux etoiles . . . is American in inspiration but one of the composer’s most individual and distinctive works, and this team gave it a definitive performance. Its dozen movements are a contemporary concerto for piano, horn and glockenspiel, on which Pierre-Laurent Aimard, Alec Frank-Gemmill and Noe Rodrigo Ginsberg were required to perform remarkable feats of musicianship, the latter with Bence Major on the hybrid xylorimba in support. Their virtuoso turns, with Frank-Gemmill exploring the outer limits of the possible on the horn and Aimard demonstrating a percussively theatrical relationship with the concert grand, are set alongside a small orchestral ensemble that marries a whole other world of percussion, including a wind machine that was very hard-worked, to a range of winds and brass that runs from piccolo, piccolo trumpet and E flat clarinet to bass clarinet, contrabassoon and bass trombone, with 13 string players. The particular timbre to the sound, especially with its high treble frequencies, could only be Messiaen, and it is his spiritual world, as much as the natural one of bird song and geographical location he was compelled to invoke, that makes Des canyons such a compelling hour-and-a-half.

Pintscher was just as virtuosic as any of the players in his marshalling of all this European talent towards a glorious finale. That concluding movement, Zion Park and the celestial city, pleasingly suggested that the music in heaven may sound a little like the most inventive moments of the Duke Ellington band.