Festival Music

BBC SSO/Canellakis

Usher Hall,


Keith Bruce

five stars

As translated from Konstantin Balmont’s Russian text, the opening word of Rachmaninov’s The Bells, sung by tenor David Butt Philip and immediately echoed by the Edinburgh Festival Chorus, was, appropriately, “Listen!”

The Closing Concert of this year’s Edinburgh International Festival had opened with a few words of welcome from new director Nicola Benedetti, who has quickly put her personal stamp on the event, with a higher public profile than any of her predecessors. That has surely been reflected at the box office, and once again the Usher Hall was filled to capacity.

Those many attentive ears were treated to a brilliantly-constructed programme by American conductor Karina Canellakis with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. It began with Wagner’s Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde, the composer’s most distinctive and personal expression of love, with the SSO strings on the stellar form they would display all night.

If Wagner’s Liebestod was once thought vulgar, it seemed tame when followed by Scriabin’s less ambiguous Poeme de l’Extase. The actual poem the Russian wrote before embarking on the composition was first titled “orgiastic”, and the successive climaxes of the piece before its final huge C major chord leave little room for doubt about its subject matter.

With nine horns, seven trumpets, and a final word from Michael Bawtree at the Usher Hall organ, it also used the bells that were to feature in the concert’s second half.

There is some sensuality in the second movement of Rachmaninov’s setting of the Russian version of Edgar Allan Poe’s poem, but the general tone of the work is, not untypically of the composer, darker.

The three soloists – the tenor followed by Ukrainian soprano Olga Kulchynska and Moscow-born Alexander Vinogradov – are a bit of a side salad to the feast, although the bass has the best of it. The focus of Canellakis was always on the orchestra and particularly the choir, who rewarded her attention with a superb performance, building through the “Loud Alarum” of the third movement’s war bells to the tolling mournful tone of the symphonic work’s finale.