Seventy years ago Haydn’s ‘Surprise’ Symphony opened the first-ever concert of the Edinburgh International Festival. For the Scottish Chamber Orchestra to present this 2017 opening concert is to the credit of this ensemble which has attained the highest standards of music-making since its foundation in 1974.
From Pablo Heras-Casado the slow introduction of the Haydn was sedate, almost wistful, the violins were immaculate, and the Allegro was bright and dashed with bursts of excitement. In the Andante, with its ‘surprise’ element, the clarity of playing was exceptional, followed by a joyful Minuet, the Symphony rounded-off with a humorous Finale taken at a breathtaking pace.
Mendelssohn’s ‘Hymn of Praise’ deserves a more regular place in the repertoire. The work lost its former popularity when the Nazis proscribed all Jewish artists from cultural life and it has rarely reclaimed its regularity of performance. Following three orchestral movements, the first opening majestically, embracing music sunny and uplifting, and then gently captivating, the sudden entry of the choir and soprano introduces a reverential idiom. The Edinburgh Festival Chorus has never sounded so magnificent. Dorothea Röschmann was a little strained in her high notes, although Werner Güra revealed a beautiful lyricism. With the entry of the two sopranos in Psalm 40, Emma Bell and Röschmann exhibited great empathy with the text and received terrific backing from the conductor.
In ‘Hymn of Praise’ one can hear the clear line from Bach to Mendelssohn, then to Brahms. Psalm 116 is a splendid aria, Güra again displaying much to admire, and the Chorus continued to demonstrate world-class singing, not least in the work’s superbly effective culmination to close one of the most-stirring Edinburgh Festival opening concerts for many years.