It can’t have escaped your notice that it was Leonard Bernstein’s 100th birthday last weekend, and the Edinburgh International Festival decided to commemorate the day in style, beginning with the final recital in this year’s Queen’s Hall series. Imaginatively, they decided to commemorate both Bernstein himself and one of his closest musical colleagues, but (mostly) to show us more unusual sides of their careers.

James Baillieu © Clive Barda
James Baillieu
© Clive Barda

The most familiar item here was the suite from Appalachian Spring, here given in its chamber version by the thirteen musicians of the Hebrides Ensemble. The sparser textures work really well at evoking Copland’s wide open spaces, and they also mean that the work’s bouncing rhythms come across much more sharply than they do with a symphony orchestra. The suite faces a huge problem, though, in that it leads so obviously up to the Simple Gifts theme that what comes before that often sounds like padding where, frankly, not much happens. Likewise, the sleepy mood that ends the suite doesn’t do much and, for most of this performance, I found myself watching the clock.

The Piano Variations, on the other hand, takes us into the much less familiar – and more forbidding – world of Copland the avant-gardiste. Dating from the 1930, before the composer’s more popular successes, this work of condensed, densely-worked modernism sounds in places as though it might have come from Berg or Webern, and James Baillieu negotiated its subterranean mutterings and spiky rhythms with dazzling flair, creating real drama out of the spectral rumblings at the outer reaches of the keyboard.

Bernstein’s Piano Trio dates from his student days, and it’s a work he took to Copland for approval and advice. It’s about as un-Bernstein as you can imagine, featuring wiry textures and a rather serious Scherzo that  sounds as though it comes from central Europe rather than New England. Arias and Barcarolles, on the other hand, is his last major work, a song cycle for two singers and four-handed piano which isn’t played often but deserves to be much better known. It mostly sets poems by the composer that look at the theme of love from contrasting, often painful angles, but each song ends up as a mini scena of its own, from the smart, sassy Love Duet to the wistful wonderings as to whether the love of your life will ever show up. This pair of singers were excellent, and were at their best in the duets, though J’Nai Bridges brought beautiful sympathy to the central “Greeting”, a gorgeous song about the birth of a child. Alex Otterburn was even finer, though, bringing buckets of character to his songs and acting them with impressive vocal drama.

There’s a lot of Bernstein around this year, but I suspect this song cycle will stick with me as my best Bernstein discovery of 2018.

****1