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Edinburgh International Festival 2009 (3) -
Mendelssohn and Chopin: Orchestre des Champs-Élysées, Alexander Longquich (piano), Philippe Herreweghe (conductor), Usher Hall, 17.8.2009 (SRT)

Mendelssohn: A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Overture; Symphony No. 3 “Scottish”
Chopin: Piano Concerto No. 2

Philippe Herreweghe and his associated bands are becoming regular guests at the Edinburgh International Festival, and most welcome they are. The Collegium Vocale Gent performed Haydn songs on Saturday morning, the Orchestre des Champs-Élysées played this evening and they unite for Mendelssohn’s Elias on Tuesday 18th. Last year the choir performed an evening which included Bruckner’s E minor Mass: there, as on record, they are characterized by a seamless legato, gorgeously smooth tone and razor-sharp fidelity to the text. The Orchestre des Champs-Élysées certainly have the fidelity to the text, though their nature as a period band means that smoothness is not always on offer. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, though, and their performance of the Midsummer Night’s Dream overture blew off plenty of cobwebs. The full orchestral sound could be a bit thin at times and even a little dry: the fairy music sounded rather sinewy and brittle. However the earthy timpani sound added an extra dimension to Bottom’s braying and the four chords of the opening sounded even more mysterious than usual. Like the best “period” ensembles they show the listener things they may never have noticed before, such as the brass calls during the overture’s recapitulation (or, in the symphony, the distinctive cello line during the first movement recapitulation).

Alas, the concerto was nowhere near as interesting, due perhaps to the rather lumpen playing of Alexander Longquich. After a well observed orchestral tutti his playing altered the tone entirely with a fractious, brittle piano line with barely any sense of line or phrasing: instead the music became bitty and fragmentary, coming dangerously close to note-bashing at times, and the
col legno section of the finale threatened to come to pieces entirely. Even when making allowances for the Chopin-era piano he was playing, this abrasive manner just wasn’t good enough. How different his encore! He played Chopin’s second Impromptu, and here at last was a sense of organic unity growing towards something. Why he didn’t produce that in the concerto is a mystery.

With the orchestra back on their own again the
Scottish symphony was quite wonderful. Here, for the first time in the evening, we could sense the orchestra and conductor relaxing into their music and it was palpable in every bar of the first movement as they leaned into each phrase, turning it into a uniquely individual comment. There was an unmissable sense of momentum and drive to the musical argument here, especially at the end of the development, and the scherzo was bright and fun in contrast, the principal clarinet skirling away happily. I’ve never heard the Adagio sound more beautiful than here and the finale built inexorably towards its final triumph. After a prolonged and well-deserved ovation most of the slow movement was encored, something hearteningly genuine in this age of pre-prepared encores.

Herreweghe is a musician of the very highest order with a unique style of music-making. May we see a lot more of him in Festivals to come!

Simon Thompson


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