The opening concert of the 2013 Edinburgh International Festival was a Scottish-Russian collaboration. The RSNO, the home team on home turf, featured two Russian soloists, all under the baton (or, more accurately, the open hands) of Valery Gergiev at Usher Hall.

Valery Gergiev © Alberto Venzago
Valery Gergiev
© Alberto Venzago

Daniil Trifonov, who wowed 2012 Edinburgh Festival audience and critics alike, featured in the first half’s only work, Prokofiev’s 1921 Piano Concerto no. 3 in C. The most frequently played of his five piano concertos, the work is rich in what David Fanning’s fine programme note described as “idiosyncratic pianistic agility... alongside his psychological need to startle and delight”. It is certainly a work of great and sudden contrasts, pitting the feverish against the free-floating. These mercurial changes were nailed by conductor, soloist and orchestra alike, particularly in the central Andantino – Allegro, whose variations on a burlesque gavotte theme provide ample scope for the musical quick change artist.

Gergiev’s attentions swept the full 180° of the forces before him, allowing the audience to witness the urgency of his petitions. This prompted me to think that such high-octane, in-the-moment focus, facially expressed, could easily be mistaken for admonishment by a sensitive soul.

Trifonov seemed to be having great fun in the work’s quirky and ironic moments; to be reaching into some distant sphere in the more eerie, searching passages; to play like a man possessed in frenzied climaxes. The last was particularly the case as the work neared its conclusion. Trifonov’s possession by the music, the result of honed technique and supreme musicianship, seemed miles from showbiz histrionics. Audience reaction seemed to be with me on this: the capacity crowd simply erupted. Sustained cheering and applause were acknowledged with an encore, no. 2 from Nikolai Medtner’s Fairy Tales, Op. 51. I was taken with how, as in the Prokofiev, this 22-year-old soloist assumed a new mood and language so instantly and so completely.

Just before the concert, outgoing festival director Jonathan Mills, together with Korean artist Hyung Su Kim, launched “Media Skins: Digital Kaleidoscope”. Housing e-flyers of coming performances and (soon) clips from past ones, these trailer-cum-aide-memoir, on-street screens reflect the theme of this year’s festival: how artists engage with technology. It’s not instantly obvious how an opening concert of pre-1940 symphonic works fits, until one recalls that Prokofiev’s 1939 cantata Alexander Nevsky is an adaptation of his score for Sergei Eisenstein’s 1938 film of the same name. The director was greatly impressed with the composer’s ability to provide music which impeccably mirrored the action. James M. Keller’s excellent, extensive programme note wove together the many strands of this historical collaboration’s provenance and reception.

The eponymous hero, Alexander Yaroslavich (1220–63), earned the sobriquet Nevsky after routing invading Swedes in the 1240 Battle of Neva. Although the film depicts the 1242 defeat of crusading Teutonic Knights, it communicates thinly veiled concern over 1930s German ambitions, evidenced by its withdrawal from circulation during the short-lived Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of Non-aggression.

The cantata’s seven movements follow the film’s dramatic contour, climaxing in the fifth, “The Battle on the Ice”. This iconic scene, a celebrated cinematic achievement, concludes when Lake Peipus’ ice cracks, revealing a watery grave for the heavily armoured invaders. The 171-strong Edinburgh Festival Chorus, excellently directed by Christopher Bell, reached terrifying levels of not only volume but aggression. The terror communicated was not the defenders’ Russian but the aggressors’ Latin.

I was especially impressed with Gergiev and the RSNO during an accelerando which, although not yet having seen the film, I feel sure depicted that gripping moment when opposing armies break into a run as they approach one another. This moment alone tends me towards Eisenstein’s high option of Prokofiev.

The slaughter subsided, the solo mezzo-soprano’s only movement arrived. I was extremely impressed by Yulia Matochkina’s ability to enter the proceedings relatively late on and, in an instant, to redirect the mood. While it’s true that around one minute’s orchestral music had preceded her entry, the sound of this first and only solo voice, and the dark beauty and depth it conveyed, were suddenly very affecting. A truly operatic performer, Matochkina, arms extended, continued to survey the scene of devastation during the closing orchestral bars. I also found, in the poetry of this section, relief from the bombast of other passages of the text, and fully acknowledge that this opinion comes easily when you are not a public figure in Stalinist Russia.

The closing movement’s celebrations, tinged with a warning to future would-be invaders, yielded to huge applause and three curtain calls for all who had contributed to this wonderfully memorable evening.