This year's Edinburgh International Festival logo, bluebell-bedecked barbed wire, acknowledges the World War I centenary whilst denoting EIF 2014's theme of culture and conflict. The Opening Concert's works reflected a variety of adversarial situations.

The Festival's origins lie in attempting to heal the wounds of World War II. There is, as was pointed out in the excellent online Festival Soundbites, a poignant irony in Schoenberg's 1909 Five Orchestral Pieces Op.16 having been premièred in England (1912); he'd experienced little support from his compatriots, the post-tonal/pre-serial language seemingly beyond them. Orchestration is key, notably in the central “Farben” (Colours). This gorgeous movement, certainly as played here, is a mini-festival of balance and teamwork, creating an undulating light-upon-the-water effect. Seeing the entry and exit of players and sections, one observes the gulf between the sound and its production - the swan's feet in full view as it were. Knussen was fascinating to watch; always busy but never urgent, he embodied the rehearsed communication essential to well prepared performance. Dynamics were subtle and dramatic as required, the latter informing the often fraught scurryings of the fourth movement, “Peripetis” (Wandering About). The RSNO brass section contributed marvellously to these moments, especially trombones. Some audience members I spoke to lauded the performance but had struggled with the piece. Is 105 years is too soon for Schoenberg? Surely not.

Kirill Gerstein © Marco Borggreve
Kirill Gerstein
© Marco Borggreve

Scriabin's 1910 Prometheus - The Poem of Fire depicts the theft of fire from Zeus or, alternatively, man's progress from primordial soup to just dessert of enlightenment by force of Nietzschian will. Those who revel in the physics of scales and chords may sense in Scriabin's 'mystical chord' (assembled for and near-permanently present in this work) the raised fourth note, perhaps suggesting Promethean audacity and the lowered seventh note, heavenly discouragement. Piano soloist Kirill Gerstein read from his own Promethean paraphernalia - a tablet whose 'pages' were turned by his left foot's Bluetooth pedal. This suggested laudable eyesight, dexterous footwork, and faith in battery life.

Although not a concerto, the work's considerable piano contribution is virtuosic. Alternating between dense chordal work and lighter, more playful, improvisatory passages, the part highlighted Gerstein's pianistic technique and touch; the lightest moments sounded almost celeste-like. Synaesthetic Scriabin delighted in orchestral colour and some lovely touches stood out, such as pizzicato cellos against bowed violins, or the dialogue between Katherine Bryan's flute and Adrian Wilson's oboe. A work extensively featuring a non-vibrato instrument such as piano benefits from some contrast, here supplied in RSNO Leader James Clark's lovely solo passages.

Having sat patiently for the majority of the work, the 142-strong Edinburgh Festival Chorus ignited the closing bars with vigorous vocalise. The power was quite astonishing, the more so because the final, bright F sharp chord finally focused the preceding chromatic haze. The audience response was extremely vocal for singers, orchestra and soloist.

Debussy's 1911 Le Martyre de Saint Sébastien is set during the reign of Diocletian (284 to 313 AD). Constructed in five 'mansions' it recounts the death (by firing squad of archers) of the now Patron Saint of Archers, as told by poet, dramatist and military hero Gabriele D'Annunzio (1863–1938). The text highlights parallels between the death and rebirth of Christ and Adonis. Many have since detected a foreshadowing of the pending sacrifice of European youth.

The chorus and soloists perform various earthly and heavenly roles. Condemned twins, whose saving by Sébastien's intercession opens the drama, were movingly represented by mezzo-sopranos Claire McCaldin and Polly May. The Chorus fulfils a panoply of military, civilian and celestial roles. The Edinburgh Festival Chorus were in superb form and the appearance of their excellent Director Christopher Bell unleashed a volubly grateful response.

Opening Concert at the Edinburgh International Festival © Clark James
Opening Concert at the Edinburgh International Festival
© Clark James

Soprano Claire Booth was outstanding in the roles of The Virgin Erigone, Heavenly Voice, A Lone Voice (Adonis) and (post-mortem) Sébastien's Soul. Her strikingly high first entry descended pentatonically across an impressive range. This lovely melody was nicely foreshadowed by Katherine Bryan's flute. Tone, balance and diction were spot on, in a language which lends itself less to sung clarity than, say, German or Italian. Later, as Sébastien's Soul, Booth admirably conveyed the martyr's rapture.

Knussen and the RSNO really seemed to enjoy the fabulously cinematic music between vocal numbers – Zoe Kitson's sustained cor anglais solo being a memorable highlight. Others transfixing sonorities included the fantastic fanfare which opens the “Troisième Mansion” and some lovely string writing later in the same movement. Debussy really was the best composer that Hollywood never had.

It was a great privilege to hear these rarely performed works. Immense stamina and concentration are essential by such titanic repertoire – particularly for the one person on this packed Usher Hall stage denied a single bar's rest – Oliver Knussen.