RSNO/Gergiev review – all-Russian programme offers much to admire

After a year’s Covid-enforced absence, live concerts have returned to the Edinburgh international festival, albeit in a slightly different guise. In place of the Usher Hall, this year’s orchestral concerts are being staged – in a socially distanced manner – in a grand marquee on a school lawn in the north side of the city. It’s outdoor festival-going – albeit more civilised and with a nod to the uncertainness of the Scottish weather.

Such a shift in venue requires a concomitant downsize in ensemble. For this programme, revisiting the successful partnership of Russian maestro Valery Gergiev with the local forces of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, this meant string works by Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich and Stravinsky in place of gargantuan Soviet-era works of previous years.

There’s also the question of what an audience will tolerate in an open-air, rather draughty setting. If Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings and Shostakovich’s First Piano Concerto are guaranteed crowd-pleasers then the same could not be said about Stravinsky’s Apollon Musagète. The neoclassical ballet score, Stravinsky at his very driest, made for a decidedly anticlimactic conclusion to the programme.

That was a pity, as there was much to admire elsewhere. Gergiev apparently decided a luxuriously expansive approach was the best way to deal with the rather murky acoustic and his was a sonorous, unhurried account of the Tchaikovsky, all swelling cellos and endless lines. Steven Osborne was a luxury replacement soloist in the Shostakovich, bringing his hallmark intelligent and unfussy style to the score. Although the detail was sometimes obscured by the acoustic, there were moments, especially in the finale, where the wry playfulness really shone through, particular in the dialogue between Osborne and trumpet soloist Christopher Hart.

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