The LA Phil opened the 2019 Edinburgh International Festival last Friday night with a free open-air concert at Tynecastle Stadium in the south-west of the city. They played music from the movies, the highlight of which was Bernard Hermann’s suite from Vertigo. The love scene, especially, was sensational, with gorgeous strings caressing every phrase, managing to make it sound loving and tender, even through the chaos of encircling seagulls.

Gustavo Dudamel © Adam Latham
Gustavo Dudamel
© Adam Latham

I mention that because it came back to my mind forcibly during this evening’s performance of Barber’s Adagio for Strings, which displayed all the same traits: string playing of remarkable sensitivity that emerged, soft-breathed, out of the silence and cast a spell as it did so. Combine that with Gustavo Dudamel’s understanding of the piece’s inner workings and you had something that lifted it above the mundane and into something rather magical. This piece is so simple that it defies analysis – Copland attributed its success to the fact that “it comes straight from the heart” – but when treated seriously and played as lovingly as this, it becomes something pretty special.

You could say the same about their Tchaikovsky Fourth, which was the most exciting performance of this symphony I’ve heard in years. For a start, it gave the orchestra the chance to showcase what a fantastic set of players they are, with silken strings, sparky, characterful winds and brass that had the power to pin you to the back of your seat – and not just in the opening fanfare: they could also cut through the tumult of the development like a searchlight. Dudamel showed impressive control throughout, refusing to allow the tempo to drift but controlling every element so that when the changes in speed did come they were remarkably effective. He conjured up fury at the climax of the development, for example, and then slowed up dramatically in the first movement coda so as to produce a thrillingly theatrical climax. There was a flowing melancholy to the slow movement and energetic mischief to the Scherzo, much of which Dudamel simply allowed to happen as he kept his hands by his sides. The explosion of the finale was so sudden that it took the strings a few bars to find unanimity, but it was thrilling when it came, and the final pages showed that Dudamel had the orchestra right where he wanted them. His good-humoured encore of Sousa’s Liberty Bell, where he conducted the audience in how to clap, showed that he had the crowd eating out of his hand too.

My only doubts came in John Adams’ new piano concerto, Must the Devil Have All the Good Tunes? Adams described it as “a Totentanz, only not of the Lisztian manner but more of funk-invested American-style,” and you get that flavour right from the start, as it begins with an off-kilter but very funky piano riff that couldn’t have come from anywhere other than America. To my ears it had the jazzy echoes of a 1920s speakeasy: if this really was Satan, then he came dressed as Al Capone, and pianist Yuja Wang was perfectly happy to incarnate him with all the devilish mastery for which she is famous. Ironically for a piece with this title, however, the piece’s major problem is its lack of tunes. Its appeal is rhythmic and textural throughout, even in the twinkling central section with its echoes of the final part of Harmonielehre, but the music repeatedly builds without really ending up anywhere, and there’s only so far syncopated chuggings can take you. I’m a fully paid-up John Adams fan, but I was left wondering whether this concerto wasn’t much more than him simply repeating himself.

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