As big openers go, they don’t come much more spectacular than Mahler’s Symphony no. 2 with its roof-raising finale. The Edinburgh International Festival welcomed back the LA Philharmonic in its centenary year for their first performances in the city for over a decade, the residency including two major programmes as well as an open rehearsal of the Youth Orchestra Los Angeles and Scotland’s Big Noise, both groups having associations with conductor Gustavo Dudamel. Although the Mahler was the official opening concert, the LA Phil’s first engagement was at Tynecastle Football stadium the previous evening performing popular film scores, a continuation of Festival Director Fergus Linehan’s innovative free events marking the start of each of his festivals in a unique way.

Gustavo Dudamel and the LA Phil at the Edinburgh International Festival
© Ryan Buchanan

Back in the Usher Hall, the large Edinburgh Festival Chorus filed into the organ gallery seats as the leader tuned the orchestra up: violins left and right, cellos dead centre and double basses where rear desks of the second violins might normally go. Seven horns were placed conventionally but with tuba and trombones as neighbours, the brass line-up finishing with six trumpets, the unusual arrangement heralding a unique dynamic sound. Dudamel knows this work inside-out from conducting the Simón Bolívar Orchestra, and, working here without a score, drew a magnificent performance from his players, the extra frisson of direct contact drawing dramatic contrasts between the big grand moments and tender lyrical passages.

Dudamel was like an artist with a new paint box, turning up the power all the way in the darkly coloured electric opening where the cellos and basses growled, tremolos fizzing and crackling with nervous energy in the upper strings, but drawing gentle zephyr violin playing before the purposeful tread of the funeral march set in, horns calling and woodwind sighing. The dynamic range of detail drew in the listener as the quietest passages in the double basses developed to blazing themes emerging from the bells-up horns underpinned by the rumbles from the double timpani placed on a platform above and behind the second violins. The final downward orchestral dash to the final soft pizzicatos and percussion thumps was positively visceral.

The Ländler with Austrian folk tunes was a welcome ray of sunshine, Dudamel guiding the strings through the lilting music, pointing it up humorously with subtle accents and deftly handled pizzicato unison. The antiphonal placing of the players showcased the violas and second violins splendidly and allowed the centrally placed cellos to speak directly into the heart of the concert hall. A lively third movement danced along with a rute marking time in the percussion, but became sinister as the music darkened – Dudamel making organic shapes as he pulled extra muscle from the violins, the woodwind and brass tempestuous – before a soft low note heralded Urlicht, Swedish mezzo Anna Larsson breathing a hushed “O Röschen rot” bringing chaos to order. Brass chorales and a sweet oboe solo brought momentary comfort, but as the music thickened the uncomfortable placing of Larsson behind the seconds and right in front of the timpani brought issues of balance.

Gustavo Dudamel, the LA Phil and the Edinburgh Festival Chorus
© Ryan Buchanan

The long final movement was packed with high drama, the orchestral turbulent themes developing early with deep brass sounds from the trombones and tuba, sparkling woodwind and biting percussive strings – all under a measured and finely judged control from Dudamel balancing light and dark. The offstage brass in the passages behind the grand circle added drama in surround sound, marred momentarily by an unlucky trumpet fluff. The Edinburgh Festival Chorus had a long wait from warming up, sitting stock still in a sweltering hall, singing without scores, they were accurate and mesmerising in the magical moment when they entered, hushed and unaccompanied. Larsson was joined by fellow Swede Miah Persson whose gorgeous soprano floated her top notes over the growing surge as the chorus swelled thrillingly and the Usher Hall organ thundered to a magnificent finish, Dudamel turning up the power so loud that it almost drowned the final (tubular) bells.

This exciting performance from the LA Phil and Dudamel was an impressive and strong start to the 2019 Edinburgh Festival, also marking Aiden Oliver’s first Festival as the Edinburgh Festival Chorus Director, setting a promisingly high choral benchmark.