You wait ages for a Janáček work and five come along at once. The BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra supplied the fifth: his Glagolitic Mass. The title derives from the Old Slavic "glagol" (word) and refers to the 9th century Slavonic alphabet; the Mass was written, and here performed, in Old Church Slavonic.

The dramatic Intrada, which both opens and closes the Paul Wingfield edition of the work performed here, features strings, timpani and brass of such urgency that one might believe the commission to have been for stage rather than altar. As urgent as the notes are the sudden rests towards the end, which the BBC SSO under Ilan Volkov launched with murderous attack.

Ilan Volkov © BBC| Tommy Ga-Ken Wan
Ilan Volkov
© BBC| Tommy Ga-Ken Wan

The 148-strong Edinburgh Festival Chorus (EFC) entered in the Gospodi pomiluj (Kyrie eleison). Egged on, as opposed to ushered in, by pressing cellos and basses, then more gentle, lyrical solo oboe, they calmly began their beautifully balanced, pentatonic petitions. Director Chrstopher Bell must have been proud of their sound. Soprano Hibla Gerzmava heightened tensions dramatically until, the choir rejoining, a much more emotive temperature was reached. Gerzmaza continued into the Slava (Gloria) where, following some animated antiphonal chorus work, she was joined by fortissimo tenor Simon O'Neill. His fine voice led the choir in the movement's most distinctive moment - the pressing Amin (Amen). There was nothing of the calm assent of a Latin Amen here, nor the dignified transportations of Wagner's ‘Dresden’ Amen. These short, repeated syllables did not soar but jabbed. It was a very instructive few seconds on the difference that individual style, denomination and culture can make to expression of the same word.

Professed unbeliever Janáček invested the lion's share of musical matter in that statement of belief that is the Vĕruju (Credo). There is an odd mix of the spritely and the transcendent in the opening and certainly as delivered here – the optimistic assurance one might imagine ever-renewed belief to promote. O'Neill continued reverentially onto the text's contemplations on the second person of the Trinity. Soaring cellos featured in a transitional passage which led us, via woodwind, to a brass accelerando; the Passion section of the Creed was upon us, but not before the first excellent organ interlude by Thomas Trotter. The calmly elevating nature of Resurrection was left to the EFC's fine female voices. The Amin, though repeated, was less urgent than previously – almost swing.

Having opened in a more chirpy, pastoral manner than many similar movements, the Svet (Sanctus) grew in intensity, particularly with Gerzmava's stratospheric soprano entry and bass Jan Martiník's mighty bass voice. This continued seamlessly into the Blagoslav'en gredyj (Benedictus), to whose high register strings and harps the rich alto voice of Claudia Huckle added depth and warmth.

Of the work's many departure's from Latin or Western European norms, none struck me so much as the opening of the Agneče Božij (Agnus Dei). The orchestral introduction, wonderfully delivered here, convinced me that Bernard Hermann must have known this work, such were the eerie cinematic undertones. The balanced entreaties of the EFC and the quartet of fine soloists provided a wonderful counterpoint to this. Just before the final Intrada, Thomas Trotter wowed us all with the Varhany (Organ solo), a showcase of manual, pedal and organ stop virtuosity. 

The concert opened with a work by outgoing EIF Director Jonathan Mills. Chiming plangently with this year's Conflict and Culture theme, his Sandakan Threnody commemorates the 2,428 victims, and six survivors, of the 1945 Sandakan Death Marches in Borneo. Prisoners of the Japanese, these Australian and British men perished along 260km of inhospitable jungle tracks after the abandonment of an airfield they'd been forced to build.

The work sets three texts: Psalm 130 (De profundis), Anna Akhmatova's Epilogue (from Requiem) and Randolph Stow's Sleep. The opening instrumental section was very evocative, especially the final moments depicting the sounds of Borneo: rustling, wood, insect and birdlife. The preceding dark textures, economically constructed, featured excellent horn and cor anglais playing.

EFC baritone Ivor Klayman's excellent delivery of Psalm 130 was especially impressive in the harmonically challenging setting of deprecationis meae (my supplication). Equally stunning was the assured choral pitching of some very dense chords. The marimba's Morse Code translation of the psalm provided a subtext of unease.

Tenor Andrew Staples featured movingly in Epilogue and Sleep, the latter warmed by some lovely string playing, especially several solo moments for leader Laura Samuel. On first hearing, I was very struck by this piece. Addressing the audience at the concert's conclusion, Mills thanked them for their support during eight years directing "your festival" before wishing his successor, Fergus Linehan, well in what he could now call "our festival".