Festival Music

The Philadelphia Orchestra

Usher Hall, Edinburgh

Keith Bruce

four stars

THEY’RE a cocky lot, the Philadelphians. In what can only have been a shocking failure in communication of its current Covid protocols, the esteemed US orchestra and its music director Yannick Nezet-Seguin arrived for its residency at the end of the 75th Edinburgh International Festival declining to play Beethoven’s 9th unless the Festival Chorus (who had rehearsed the work) and the soloists (already contracted by EIF) were masked, resulting in the replacement of the Choral Symphony with Rachmaninov’s Isle of the Dead and Beethoven’s 5th.

Then, by way of recompense, the conductor took to the podium on Thursday evening and announced a “present” to the audience, prefacing the revised programme with Dvorak’s Carnival Overture – a spontaneous gesture the Festival team would likely be less than enthusiastic about, given that the Czech Phil opened its residency with the same work less than a week ago.

Be that as it may, there’s no denying that Nezet-Seguin and The Philadelphia Orchestra have the chops to justify their swagger, even if a vanishingly small proportion of the musicians onstage were actually wearing masks themselves.

The bonus Overture was probably faster and louder than the Czech orchestra had played it – there was characteristically American pzazz in spades, but arguably the performance had more impact than substance.

On the face of it the Rachmaninov seemed an odd choice, but it worked brilliantly in this context. It is a piece of Russian impressionism, inspired by a dark painting by Swiss symbolist Arnold Bocklin, which showed off the rich tone of the orchestra’s low strings and superb ensemble of eight horns before the incisive entry of the violins. Nezet-Seguin’s dynamic ebb and flow was captivating and orchestra leader David Kim contributed an especially ear-catching solo.

After some downsizing and re-setting, the conductor launched the players into the Fifth at pace, the famous four note opening, and the four following, quickly dispatched as a precursor to the revealing of the full force of the strings, a sound of incredible depth. That muscularity applied across the orchestra – is Don S. Liuzzi an especially vigorous timpanist or were these particularly fine drums and sticks? – with the horns entry at the start of the third movement quite magnificent.

As the slow second movement demonstrated, these musicians can play very quietly as well, a skill displayed again on the transition from the Scherzo to the Finale. No matter how often you may have heard that conclusion unfold, in all its rhythmic variation, this conductor and his players made it as compelling as it can be.