Festival Music

Budapest Festival Orchestra/Fischer Usher Hall,


Keith Bruce

five stars

ALTHOUGH the journey was interrupted by the singing-cancelling restrictions of the Covid pandemic, it is notable that the National Youth Choir of Scotland has established itself as an essential – and often extraordinary – choral force at the Edinburgh International Festival, keeping the adults of the Festival Chorus on their mettle.

Ahead of NYCOS’s own concert in the same venue on Sunday, the young women of director Christopher Bell’s NYCOS National Girls Choir stepped up to the same high level of performance as conductor Ivan Fischer’s Budapest Festival Orchestra and virtuoso pianist Sir Andras Schiff (born in the Hungarian capital and now a British citizen) to add the least familiar music to a superb programme.

The seven folk choruses Bela Bartok orchestrated (of a total of 27 he wrote to be used in Kodaly’s music education programme in Hungary) are terrific fun, but far from straightforward, and the NYCOS Girls had them memorised – in Hungarian – and delivered them with crisp diction and awareness of the comedy in the sequence. The surtitles let the rest of us in on the jokes, culminating in the “Boys’ teasing song” being more sharply rendered as “Mocking the lads”. It would have been good to have had those texts and translations in the printed programme as well.

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The Kodaly method is still the way NYCOS instils musical literacy in generations of Scottish youngsters, and the composer’s Dances of Galanta – possibly his best-known work – followed. Like the girls, Fischer required no score to direct the orchestra through this superbly-constructed suite, and the music on their stands was possibly unnecessary for a good few of the musicians as well.

The colours of the orchestration are very different from those of Bartok’s Romanian Folk Dances, which had opened the concert, but the seductive result is much the same. In an inspired illustration of that process, that first work was preceded by a performance of the same tunes by a folk trio of fiddle, viola and bass drawn from the orchestra’s ranks. And in a further display of their versatility, the musicians metamorphosed into a period band and choir for an encore of Monteverdi at the concert’s end.

The largest work of the evening was Bartok’s Piano Concerto No 3, with Schiff revelling in the late Romantic elements of what is some of the most approachable music the composer wrote, and heard too rarely.

With echoes of Wagner and Strauss in the opening movement, the elegiac Beethoven-derived Allegro religioso was laden with pathos, while the lively finale sounded nothing like the work of a man who would die before he completed the last bars of the work’s orchestration.