And we’re off! Edinburgh’s annual explosion of culture kicked off in style on Friday night with the LA Philharmonic performing a free concert of movie music at Tynecastle Stadium. It’s the most accessible (and, I’m sure, the most popular) of the free opening events that Festival Director Fergus Linehan has staged since he took on the job in 2015, with some top notch playing on stage contrasting with a pleasing sense of anarchy in the come-one-come-all audience.

Andreas Ottensamer © Lars Borges | Mercury Classics
Andreas Ottensamer
© Lars Borges | Mercury Classics

The serious business began the following morning in the Queen’s Hall, where the stars came out in the shape of Yuja Wang and Andreas Ottensamer for the festival’s first morning recital. Big stars doing their thing is what the EIF specialises in, though even this felt a bit much with six encores, including one where they shared the keyboard in a four-handed duet; demonstrating that they’re both showmen to their fingertips, literally!

This programme of clarinet/piano duets played to that though, interestingly, they were at their best in the arrangements rather than the originals. In Weber’s Grand Duo Concertant, Ottensamer’s clarinet sounded rather breathy, as though under pressure. Wang, on the other hand, was admirably restrained as befits the style, but not even the liquid grief of the slow movement seemed to pull them into sync. The clarinet was agile, if a little heavy-handed and, dare I say it, a little rushed.

No: it was in the adaptations that this concert really took flight, particularly Nikolay Popov’s sensational arrangement of Brahms’ A major Intermezzo, where the clarinet sang beautifully over the undulating piano line; and in the concentrated intensity of Mendelssohn’s Songs Without Words, in Ottensamer’s own arrangements, which flowed with unhurried contemplation.

Indeed it was their sense of communication that allowed the two performers to show some proper chemistry. They’ve toured together, and recently released a CD, so they work together well – how else could you explain that four-handed duet?! – and they repeatedly seemed to check things with one another, Ottensamer glancing at Wang as often as he looked at the audience. You could sense the benefits of that in the seductive gurglings of Debussy’s Première Rhapsodie, which was ripe with mysteries lurking beneath the surface, the furtive clarinet and rippling piano making a delicious mix.

That was also true of Horovitz’s cheeky Sonatina, but Wang came into her own in two wonderful solo numbers, too. Liszt’s arrangement of Schubert’s Gretchen am Spinnrade was introverted and focused, as though hypnotised by the same circling wheel that has ensnared the subject of the original poem; and Chopin’s B minor waltz was shaped with sensitivity rather than ostentation, growing from a quietly introspective beginning into a performance of beautiful nuance.

Then came the six encores, where nuance was soundly thrown out the window; but there they demonstrated that fireworks have their place too.

****1