The motto for the 2007 Edinburgh International Festival, which ended on Sunday with the traditional fireworks concert, might have been “Feeding the 5,000”. In his first year as festival director, Jonathan Mills got hold of a few loaves of bread and shared them in a way that satisfied most visitors. I doubt if anyone will thank him for it, least of all Edinburgh’s city fathers or the powers-that-be in the Scottish parliament.
Scotland’s capital has once again got away with parading its name round the world on the cheap. For the next 49 weeks it can return to being a cultural backwater. This city of festivals assumes people will always come because of the sheer quantity of events, but sooner or later lack of investment will show in the quality of the product. The Cologne Capriccio said it all. Edinburgh wrongly assumed it was getting international quality. The only reason this German municipal ensemble came was because it had a big enough subsidy to share the cost – unlike Scottish Opera, whose subsidy is too small to compete.
Several Scottish companies are of international quality, a verdict underscored by Saturday’s all-Poulenc programme featuring the Royal Scottish National Orchestra and Edinburgh Festival Chorus. You’d never have guessed Poulenc could sell out the Usher Hall, but with the right mix of ingredients – Gillian Weir in the Organ Concerto, Christine Brewer in the Stabat Mater and a full cast of nuns in extracts from Dialogues des Carmélites – Mills had a hit on his hands. Stéphane Denève, the RSNO’s music director, wielded his forces with the sort of idiomatic flair, technical élan and big-occasion temperament such a programme needs: he could prove one of Mills’s most useful allies.
To the Concerto, where Poulenc has one foot in church and one in the fairground, Weir brought her customary verve. The Festival Chorus negotiated the treacherously soft entries of the Stabat Mater with aplomb, matched by Brewer’s big-and-bright soprano.
As for the “Salve regina”, Denève had 16 female soloists strung along the front of the platform, proving that Poulenc’s description of nuns at the guillotine can work as deliciously in concert as in the theatre.