In an era of spoon-fed culture it can be healthful for an audience to think for itself, even when the programme-puzzle presented to it has no obvious solution. Such was the case with the Edinburgh International Festival’s opening splash on Friday, when little-known works by Schoenberg, Scriabin and Debussy, all dating from the decade before 1914, were placed together like an anti-populist manifesto. This was less a festive fanfare than a contemplative hymn to creativity – an abstract template on to which the festival’s manifold centenary commemorations of war can be projected over the next three weeks. The 2014 festival is the last of Jonathan Mills’s eight years in charge, and he seems to be going out with a typically high-minded flourish.
The native element came from the Royal Scottish National Orchestra and Edinburgh Festival Chorus, both of them inspired to a rare degree of agility and belief by the unfussy Oliver Knussen. None of the three works – Schoenberg’s Five Orchestral Pieces, Scriabin’s Prometheus, the Poem of Fire and Debussy’s Le Martyre de Saint Sébastien – is easy to pull off, but Knussen made each sound convincing on its own quirky terms.
If you had to pin them to a theme, it could be the way they combine “the precision of science with the seductions of the dream” – a line the programme book attributed to Gabriele D’Annunzio, the Italian poet who gave Debussy the masochistic scenario for Le Martyre. It’s a line that suits Debussy’s music, in which seductive timbres of colour, light and movement only come alive when, as here, they are pinpointed with finesse. The chorus and soprano soloist, Claire Booth, were outstanding, and the RSNO brass seized their chances.
Schoenberg’s Five Pieces also depend on a degree of artless subtlety if their dream of unsystematic harmony is to take shape, as it did in Knussen’s calm, confidence-building hands. In between these two works came Scriabin’s monstrous plume of hot air. If it’s possible to give a really good performance of a really bad piece of music, this was it – but Knussen and the valiant Kirill Gerstein, playing the thankless piano solo, deserved better.