tue 18/06/2024

Currie, RSNO, Gardner, Usher Hall, Edinburgh | reviews, news & interviews

Currie, RSNO, Gardner, Usher Hall, Edinburgh

Currie, RSNO, Gardner, Usher Hall, Edinburgh

Bold storytelling in a programme of MacMillan and Sibelius at Edinburgh International Festival

Colin Currie: muscular athleticism in MacMillan's Second Percussion ConcertoJessica Griffin

On paper it looked like it would be very much a concert of two halves. James MacMillan’s energetic, glittering Second Percussion Concerto was unveiled last year and received its first UK performance in London last December, and it was getting its premiere in the composer’s homeland at this Edinburgh International Festival concert from its dedicatee, percussionist Colin Currie, and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra.

And in the second half, something entirely different: Sibelius’s rarely performed, hugely expansive choral symphony Kullervo.

What brought the two contrasting works together – and made the concert such a hugely rewarding experience – was the musical personality of conductor Edward Gardner (pictured below). You could tell he’s had years in the opera pit: he tackled both pieces with a keen sense of storytelling, leading the listener through their vivid musical descriptions and shifting moods expertly. He drove the RSNO onwards with some urgent direction – but he was crystal clear, and precise in his demands. And in response, the Orchestra showed what it was capable of in thrillingly broad, sweeping playing, committed and secure.

It was Edinburgh-born Colin Currie, however, who was the real showman in the concert’s first half, but despite the muscular athleticism of MacMillan’s percussion writing – which had Currie leaping from one end of a marimba to the other, or scampering across stage to reach an alternative set of instruments – he hardly seemed to break a sweat. It felt like the music was in his bones – and MacMillan’s energetic, assertive writing likewise felt the ideal match for his enthusiastic musical personality. Indeed, the piece is classic MacMillan in many ways – violently propulsive passages yielding to intense introspection, lyrical yet angular, with nods to spirituality in slow-moving brass chorales. But it’s no less effective for that. A duet for viola (delivered lithely by the RSNO’s principal, Tom Dunn) and Currie on steel pan was unexpectedly beguiling, and MacMillan’s sense of dramatic pacing was spot-on. There were an awful lot of notes to take in – in fact, some of Currie’s propulsive runs up and down his instruments, though virtuosic, felt a bit like texture-filling – but it was a thoroughly convincing performance of what’s sure to become a fixture in the percussion repertoire.

Edward GardnerAnd despite its cheery story, taken from the epic Finnish Kalevala, of abuse, incest, rape, revenge and suicide, in Gardner’s hands, Sibelius’s enormous Kullervo sounded like a confident celebration of the nation’s identity, a resounding acceptance of both darkness and light. He took his time over things, allowing the drama to unfold with Brucknerian expansiveness, but with his keen dramatic pacing and piquant details, it never felt sluggish. The concert’s chorus – brought together from the gentlemen of the Edinburgh Festival Chorus and RSNO Chorus (Sibelius thought it unseemly to have women sing of matters of the flesh) – sounded at first a bit hesitant in the chant-like declamations of the cataclysmic third movement, telling of the hero Kullervo’s rape of his sister, finding bolder confidence when their textures filled out from bare octaves to thicker harmonies. By the end, it felt like an undeniably long, demanding work, but with Gardner’s expert handling of Sibelius’s huge blocks of orchestra sound, one that grew to a sense of affirmation.


Please about the duet surely worth a comment

As a Finn I find it awkward to read that Sibelius's Kullervo symphony is rarely performed. As a chorus master I have done it about sixty times round Europe and the U.S. My collegues in Finland have an equal quantity of productions. The problem, which I find very crucial, is the pronounciation of Finnish; aspirations, which we don't have and lazy consonants which takes off all the power of this, in my opinion, true masterpiece. To pronounce the language even too properly is essential for even a decent performance. I am about to wonder, how was it in this case.

Distinguished Mr Lansio, only a Finn present in the Usher Hall would be able to tell you. I am sure commenter Sibbe will be able to do so when Oramo conducts Kullervo at the Proms very soon.

Mr. Oramo is definitely going to show You what Kullervo is about and really magnificent Polytech Choir! I really hope that men of BBC-chorus will not spoil the performance aspirating consonants. Looking forward to it's broadcasting.

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