The Cleveland Orchestra's two Slavic programmes form part of a larger Polish thread woven into this year's EIF. Witold Lutosławski's 1954 Concerto for Orchestra struck me as an ideal opening to the first concert. Its reliance on folk tunes, collected from the Masovia region (north of Warsaw) by ethnographer Oskar Kolberg, assures an unmistakably Polish flavour. Lutosławski seemed to regard these folk melodies as sufficiently robust in rhythm and implied harmony to withstand substantial opposition from what he called 'non-tonal chromatic counterpoints and harmonies'. This stroke of genius affords the music not only the propulsion supplied by folk tunes, but also a thrilling tension between the old and the new, the nationalistic and the individualistic.

© Roger Mastroianni
© Roger Mastroianni

The Cleveland Orchestra shone in all aspects of this piece - solo and ensemble. The six-strong percussion section were especially impressive, adding an urgent crispness to orchestral diction. The decade-long relationship between the Cleveland Orchestra and conductor Franz Welser-Möst struck me most through the ensemble's ability to turn on a sixpence and to navigate the work's many transitions in such a way that you feel 'on the road' before you know it. There are very many more moods than the work's three-movement form might suggest and the orchestra seemed to feel each one as a unit. The most striking example was in the finale's chorale. The melody is Lutosławski's own but, somehow, it sounds centuries old. Its first appearance, in the woodwind section, was played with the wistful delicacy that its odd harmonies seem to require - the counterpointed, jaunty folk tune on the flute only adding to its solemnity. When the strings took over, the intensity was racked up just enough to feel some kind of organic growth, but the wistfulness remained, its texture thickened. Finally the chorale reappears in the brass with an air of inevitability and dark triumph. Only the combination of great writing and playing could convey this so clearly on a first hearing. The response at the end of this, the first half's only work, was extremely enthusiastic; the kind of reaction one would normally associate with a concert's end.

Smetana's Má Vlast (My Homeland) has six movements which can be played individually or as a set. Length can be a problem if all six are included and the Cleveland Orchestra got round this with a clever touch of programming. In 1875 Smetana, having composed four, considered the work complete. The remaining two were added three years later and, for this reason, the cycle was programmed over two concerts.

Amazingly, these tone poems were written after Smetana had lost his hearing. The wonderfully cinematic quality of the writing, all too easily taken for granted in our modern age, is probably best depicted in the second movement, Vltava, which charts the river's flow from its twin sources to their confluence. From its bubbling introduction and through its flowing main theme, the music hits its descriptive goal. Oddly this was the only moment when the conducting appeared to be overly fussy. I have always felt that such pieces should 'play themselves' and that overly urgent musical direction sets up a tension between artistic goal and execution.

The anthemic quality of the opening 'Vyšehrad' was wonderfully conveyed. Standing high above the river Vltava, the site was thought to be the home of the 8th century royal court, the imagined glory of whose restoration fills the closing bars with chest-swelling grandeur. The very dramatic 'Šárka' depicts the exploits of the eponymous Bohemian Amazon maiden after whom a valley near Prague is named. The dramatic ending of this movement was so explosively played that one could feel even this cultivated Edinburgh Festival audience having to hold back their spontaneous applause. The joyous close of the previously more pastoral 'Z českých luhů a hájů' (From Bohemia's Meadows and Fields) gave the audience the prompt to unleash their suspended appreciation. The gentleman directly in front of me sighed appreciatively as the final chord died. During the fourth curtain call, I noticed a smiling Welser-Möst direct the attention of the orchestra's leader to the back row of the upper circle (the gods), where exuberant youths, with an admirable head for heights, were leaping up and down like football fans. But which team? These days, probably Spain.