Festival Music


Usher Hall, Edinburgh

Keith Bruce

four stars

THE 2022 Edinburgh Festival has begun in the way that has become familiar recently, with last-minute deputising very much “the new normal”. Following Natalya Romaniw’s withdrawal from the lead role in Dvorak’s Rusalka – and an acclaimed jump-in by her understudy, fellow Welsh soprano Elin Pritchard – the Royal Scottish National Orchestra’s first concert at the 75th event featured a change of soloist and of programme.

A positive Covid testing by Martin Grubinger meant not just the loss of the German percussionist but also of Tan Dun’s Percussion Concerto: The Tears of Nature. It is probably true, however, that the replacement of a contemporary work with Franz Liszt’s Piano Concerto No 1 may have appealed to as many ticket-holders as were disappointed.

Either way, there were a good few empty seats in the Usher Hall for a very colourful programme that now began with The Sorcerer’s Apprentice by Paul Dukas, with Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra still in place after the interval.

That work is without doubt one of the masterpieces of the 20th century, although composed by an ailing, impoverished refugee near the end of his life. It was also the highlight of the evening, the RSNO’s Principal Guest Conductor Elim Chan brilliantly shaping its clever five-movement structure and the orchestra’s principals, and sections, taking their moments in the spotlight with polish.

If the rest of the evening’s music, which was still being rehearsed half an hour before the start, was less burnished, that was unsurprising. There was some rhythmic hesitancy between the sections as the pace built in the Dukas, although the bassoons were on top form for their starring role.

The concerto was played by Czech Lukas Vondracek, whom RSNO concert-goers would remember from his performance of Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto in a Valentine’s programme with Chan back in 2019. The Liszt is neither as well constructed as that work or the Bartok, and sometimes seems unsure whether it is a virtuoso vehicle for the soloist, or a through-composed orchestral work.

Vondracek was completely at home in its big percussive moments, however, and Chan’s experience with the Chopin concertos, to which it owes a lot, with Benjamin Grosvenor, was also key to her flowing reading. The pianist added a Chopin Nocturne as an encore by way of a bonus to those gratified keyboard enthusiasts in the audience.