In his speech before the first concert of the 2013 Edinburgh International Festival, the festival director Jonathan Mills thanked the festival’s new honorary vice-president. Over the years Dr Carol Colburn Grigor has contributed £20m to the arts in Scotland, of which £8m has gone to the capital’s summer junket. In modishly classical vein, Sir Jonathan recalled that it was Aeschylus who introduced philanthropy, both the word and the concept, in his portrayal of Prometheus, who stole fire from heaven to give to man. Not perhaps the happiest analogy: Prometheus, you remember, paid for his presumption by being chained to a rock where an eagle perpetually gnawed his liver. Evidently a cultural benefactor requires strong innards besides a stout heart and firm backbone.
Friday’s opening programme in the Usher Hall was uncontroversial, unlike some in the past few years – which does not mean unexciting. Valery Gergiev conducted the Royal Scottish National Orchestra in Alexander Nevsky, the cantata Prokofiev wove from his score for Eisenstein’s film, with its famous depiction of the battle on the climactically cracking frozen river. The orchestra shone in the switchback moods, pace and dynamics of the work’s various demands for ominous quietness, sinister religiosity, the increasing pace of clashing armies, the robust folksiness and ultimate jangling, heroic pageantry that Stalin’s Russia demanded.
If the playing suggested depth and a cutting, brazen edge, the Edinburgh Festival Chorus was almost too refined. Immaculately drilled (chorus master: Christopher Bell), its diction perfect, the tone was beautiful but occasionally soft-grained, lacking a Slavic rasp, as if decorously defending Morningside rather than churning up Lake Chudskoye. The young mezzo-soprano Yulia Matochkina’s lower register showed a slightly constricted, “bottled” quality, though the voice brightened and expanded higher up.
Nevsky was prefaced by another dashing triumph. Daniil Trifonov’s playing of Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto revelled in the technical bravura (and dramatic performing style) of his currently successful 22 years. More important, he can balance the flash with delicacy and lyricism when he wants to: already a tremendously exciting artist.
Saturday morning’s recital at the Queen’s Hall afforded a demonstration of complete mastery of the singer’s art – and the storyteller’s, the lover’s and the philosopher’s. German baritone Christian Gerhaher is familiar to British audiences (his Wolfram in Covent Garden’s Tannhäuser won an Olivier award) but his perfectly calculated craft still astonishes. The voice has a light quality, at times sounding like a dark lyric tenor. An all-Schumann programme, with its challenge of Romantic emotional swings, showed him capable of a honeyed dying fall in the sigh of “Ophelia!” or cheerfulness breaking through the unrequited love of a dazzled gardener (both from the Op. 107 group with which he opened).
At the recital’s heart “Dichterliebe” showed his effortless range, both technical and emotional. Every mood-change from pain to bliss was reflected in “Wenn ich in deine Augen seh”. The nostalgia for the beloved’s “little song” in “Hör ich das Liedchen” was expressed in an ethereal thread of sound while the weeping dream of “Ich hab’ im Traum geweinet” inspired a barely audible, disembodied tone. But Gerhaher rose to the galloping rhythm and primary colours of the tapestry images of “Aus alten Märchen winkt es” while the faux naïf cracker-barrel philosophy of “Ein Jüngling liebt ein Mädchen” was delicately, wryly ironic.
The singer’s ability to wring variations from early Romantic poetic pining extended to the sweet, simple directness of “Der arme Peter” from Op. 53 and the excited boldness of “Tragödie”. Throughout the concert the pianist Gerold Huber was the ideal partner, reticent or assertive as appropriate, and, in the postludes, providing mood, colour and dramas of his own.