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Edinburgh International Festival 2009 (15) - Brahms, Berio, Mahler: Dawn Upshaw (mezzo), Tonhalle-Orchester Zürich, David Zinman (conductor), Usher Hall, 27. 8.2009 (SRT) 

Brahms: Variations on a theme by Haydn
Berio: Folksongs
Mahler: Symphony No. 4 

The Tonhalle Orchestra made what is, I think, their Edinburgh Festival debut tonight and they fully lived up to their reputation as one of Europe’s greats. Their account of the Haydn Variations was one of the most purely enjoyable performances it has been my pleasure to hear, each variation expertly observed with the contrasts between them drawn out beautifully. Zinman chose an unusually broad tempo for the famous Grazioso variation, but this made the most of the soaring violin arc in the second part. Maybe the closing bars could have done with a little more exuberance, but the last variation had an inexorable sense of build about it that was very special. The Berio folksongs, here heard in their arrangement for full orchestra, came across as immensely likeable. The composer’s respect for the original melodies – hailing from as far afield as the USA, Armenia and Azerbaijan – provided a congenial framework for some really fascinating orchestration, especially in the spectral Sardinian Song of Sadness. Dawn Upshaw’s commitment to contemporary music is well known, and she is also famous for her dramatic gifts, which here helped her to delineate each song very clearly and bring a wholly distinct vocal colour to each.

Zinman’s Mahler has proved a little controversial in his recent CD releases (see here for some reviews) but I instantly warmed to his view of the fourth symphony. The sheer breadth of the third movement seemed to open up an infinity of beauty in which we were invited to wallow, while the scherzo was playful but with a violin solo that was subtly unnerving. The fourth is all about innocence and childish naivety, and the orchestra were at their best when they were at their least refined: I loved the sheer artlessness with which the cellos took up the full version of the second theme during the first movement recapitulation. Something very odd happened in the finale, though. The soprano soloist sings the words of a child’s vision of heaven, but Upshaw sang it with a rather odd knowing-ness: she was playing the adult playing the child but who knows that the child is really being a bit simple. She “acted” the excitable child, something I found distracting, and her vocal colour became much too pallid to carry off the music convincingly. All rather odd, though the final lines, when the symphony finally settles down into E major, rocked us into silence with beautiful abandon.

The Edinburgh International Festival runs until Sunday 6th
September at venues across the city. For full details go to

Simon Thompson


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