Edinburgh International Festival 2016: Minnesota Orchestra with Osmo Vanska and Pekka Kuusisto

Edinburgh is a big place. I know that now I visited here for the first time. Soon after I stepped off the train I unwittingly ended up on the Royal Mile. Crowds of people, the majority of whom thrust fliers to comedy shows into the unsuspecting hands of passers-by. I cottoned on quite quickly. I deployed a terrifying scowl whenever I thought anyone was about to pounce. It worked.

That scowl remained with me pretty much throughout the afternoon, during the interviews I did for work, and during extended walks around a city with a jaw-dropping layout. I may possibly have got a little angry with Edinburgh as a whole. I may also have articulated this out loud at various points. Not one person stopped to look around. This obviously isn’t an uncommon sight in Edinburgh.

Set against the uncurated and unwieldy Fringe festival, Edinburgh’s International Festival is a far more sober affair. Concerts start at the advertised time, seating is reserved at the point of sale and the toilets don’t have a vaguely sticky feel underfoot. The Usher Hall is the jewel in the crown of EIF’s venue portfolio; it also has the dubious honour of having hosted the Eurovision Song Contest 45 years ago.

The Minnesota Orchestra under Osma Vanska played a programme of Sibelius and Beethoven. In the warm acoustics of the Usher Hall’s wooden interior, the audience got to hear fluid woodwind legatos, precise pizzicato and deadly pianissimos in the opening work, Sibelius’ Pohjola’s Daughter.

There was another chance to see Finnish violinist Pekka Kuusisto who had recently wowed the Proms audience with his Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto and a rip-roaring encore. Tonight he brought us Sibelius’ violin concerto, in all its bright, chilling, and resolute beauty. 

Kuusisto’s sound is measured and sweet. It lacks pretension. His playing is inclusive – it never alienates. He gently moves around the stage like the Pied Piper, but maintains throughout a refreshing authenticity to his sound, interpretation and his presence.

The second movement was much more subdued and introspective than I’ve heard it before, making for something all the more humbling as a result. A heavy raggedy start to the third movement detracted from that achievement. All recovered quickly leaving us to focus on Kussisto’s captivating presence.

In stark contrast, the Beethoven’s fifth symphony lacked the magic we’d experienced before the interval.

This was a punctual performance which often lacked drama in part because there were – put very simply – way too many string players. Eight basses made the already strong cello section sound bottom heavy.

Whilst there were plenty of occasions when dramatic dynamics demonstrated the players tremendous agility it was, on the whole, an overly lush interpretation that lacked the precise articulation we’d heard the band execute in the first half, and which present-day tastes have led us to become accustomed to. In many loud sections the cello line lacked clarity, particularly in the third movement.
Here, I want to hear the precise internal workings of all of the intervening lines. I didn’t this time. 

Come the fourth movement, Vanska had pushed the band as far as he could. For all the leaping around and gesturing on stage, there was no more fortissimo to be had. What resulted felt rather tired. It never really took off, though it tried terribly hard to get airborne.

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