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Grab a coffee before the morning recital. Have lunch at the nearest museum before taking in an afternoon talk. There may be time for a cuppa before the 6pm concert, and you can sandwich in a bowl of pasta on your way to the main evening event.
It’s known as “doing the festival”, and at Edinburgh hundreds of people “do” it very well: food is merely the prop for round-the-clock cultural feasting. Brian McMaster, festival director until last year, promoted it because it enabled him to explore the links between 19th-century music, theatre, poetry and ideas within a single day. Jonathan Mills, his successor, has adapted the template to embrace the entire history of
western music. You may no longer have a chance to explore Sturm und Drang in the contrasting light of consecutive performances, but you do get a sense of the interconnectedness of musical ideas across eight centuries – sometimes in the course of a few hours.
Its most extreme manifestation came in Wednesday afternoon’s “Conversations with Artists” slot at the Hub, the festival’s peaceful HQ on the tourist-infested Royal Mile. Paul Hillier, who conducts a concert tonight in Mills’s “Harmony and Humanity” series of early European vocal works, described how the percussionist Gerard Perrotin’s exploration of 13th-century music had influenced Steve Reich’s rhythmic patterns; how Arvo Pärt and Peteris Vasks owed a debt to medieval canonic writing; how the microtonality of Harry Partch and Lou Harrison can be traced to the pre-baroque.
Moving directly from there to Greyfriars Kirk for Machaut’s Messe de Nostre Dame, the first setting of the Mass by a single named composer, you could follow Hillier’s point: for all its quasi-Presbyterian austerity of tone (just four voices), Machaut’s music is immensely sophisticated as well as intermittently dissonant. The Orlando Consort was respectful to a fault: a slower tempo, with more embellishment, might have created a greater sense of freedom. But we were sent out into the early evening sun with an exquisitely balanced rendition of Dufay’s Ave regina celorum, the short customised motet intended for his own memorial.
Hearing unaccompanied medieval music in this setting felt like being cleansed of the naughty indulgences of 19th-century Romanticism, the era on which festival directors have traditionally binged. Even the big orchestra concerts at Usher Hall are now less central to Edinburgh’s appeal, given the way Mills has reconfigured this summer’s programme around the pre-classical era. Leaving aside the scarcity of contemporary music at his first festival (for which Mills, himself a composer, had only 16 months to prepare), it’s little short of amazing what he has assembled. Edinburgh may not have the resources to commission new music, but at least it has a rich buffet of repertoire and venues, and at Greyfriars Mills has found neglected treasure.
Not even a festival glutton like me, however, could stomach the walk to St Mary’s Cathedral in search of echoes of Machaut at Wednesday evening’s Fringe performance of the Duruflé Requiem. It had been a long day – beginning at 11am with a Queen’s Hall recital by Silvana Dussmann, the impressive Chrysothemis in last summer’s Elektra. Dussmann has a bright, billowing soprano – ideal for Strauss and Wagner – which she uses like a singing teacher. The music-stand to which her eyes were pinned (odd for someone singing in her native German) acted as a psychological barrier, and the only compensation lay in Charles Spencer’s imaginative accompaniments.
A brief mention for Monday’s superlative Usher Hall performance of The Creation, Haydn’s joyous vision of Adam and Eve before the Fall. The soprano Katharine Fuge and the Edinburgh Festival Chorus were outstanding, but why does the clowning, cheer-leading Roger Norrington allow himself to get in the way of Norrington the serious interpreter?
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