Owen Wingrave | Kronos Quartet | Simon Keenlyside | Collegium Vocale Gent
kronos quartet

Edinburgh International Festival round-up by Sarah Urwin Jones

kronos quartet
[The Kronos Quartet give Beyond Zero: 1914-1918 its European premiere]

The composer Benjamin Britten laid out all the angst of his experience as a pacifist during the Second World War in his opera Owen Wingrave. Written in 1969, to the short story by Henry James, it is a dark and intense work, full of brilliant jagged rhythms and nervy, vivid colour. It tells the story of the last heir of the Wingrave family, who rejects the soldiering of his ancestors to the horror of his family, for whom sacrificing oneself for one’s country is the ultimate aim.

This production from Aldeburgh Music and the Edinburgh International Festival was dark and claustrophobic, the walls of the haunted family estate Paramore wheeled in and out by a horrifying coterie of soldier “ghosts” on Simon Daw’s ever-changing set. Ross Ramgobin’s sympathetic Owen stood his ground against the bullying of his family – not least Susan Bullock’s vindictive Jane Wingrave, Owen’s aunt, and the military yelps of Richard Berkeley-Steele’s General Wingrave. The Britten-Pears Orchestra were vivid under conductor Mark Wigglesworth, the Chelmsford Cathedral Choristers ethereal and ghostly. Neil Bartlett’s powerful production did its best to animate the vicious and ambiguous soldier ghosts, but nonetheless created its own problems – not least in the final scene – while the sudden jolt into the paranormal again removed much of the power of the opera.

The war theme continued in the Festival Theatre in a short concert of early 20th century music by the Kronos Quartet. Beyond Zero: 1914-1918 married First World War footage with an intense score by Aleksandra Vrebalov, here given its European premiere. The effect, largely, was powerful. Vrebalov’s music seemed to animate a world ripped apart by war, its own message often riding roughshod over what the soundtrack to these silent images might have been. Vrebalov’s agitated score, and Bill Morrison’s film, frequently obscured by the deterioration of the tape from which it was digitised, effectively revisioned the war in hindsight. Before this, a thought-provoking selection of music from the same era, entitled Prelude To A Black Hole, outlined the soundworld of the early 20th century, one which, particularly in Anton Webern’s Six Bagatelles, sounded both disturbingly contemporary and, as in the case of the traditional chants and folk songs – the Kronos occasionally a little tame – long gone.

The baritone Simon Keenlyside added his slant to the war theme with a superb Queen’s Hall recital on lost innocence, mingling English songs of regret and longing by early 20th century composers, with similar by the German Romantics of the previous century. Here, then, were Gurney and Ireland, Somervell and Vaughan Williams, in settings of AE Housman and John Masefield. Keenlyside, in his sonorous baritone, phrased these poems with pinpoint judgment.

The Scottish Chamber Orchestra were at the Usher Hall for a concert with Philippe Herreweghe’s Collegium Vocale Gent. Vocally, the Collegium are smooth and infinitely coloured, and in their massed ranks for this concert of Haydn’s ‘Nelson’ Mass, Bruckner devotional works and Stravinsky’s Symphony Of Psalms, proved that increased numbers only magnified the beauty of their sound. The excellent line-up of soloists included Sophie Bevan’s ringing soprano alongside Sarah Connolly, Benjamin Hulett and Matthew Rose. Buoying it all, the SCO, tight and sculpted under Herreweghe.

Originally published in Scotland on Sunday

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