For Weber, read Lloyd Weber

Edinburgh Festival Classical: Anthony Holden on Weber | Schubert | Feldman

Weber Usher Hall

Schubert Queen's Hall

Feldman Usher Hall

Aged only 38, Carl Maria von Weber already knew he was dying when he received an invitation from Charles Kemble to write an opera for Covent Garden. It was 1824, and no fewer than five versions of Weber's huge hit, Der Freischütz, were playing in London alone. He was, you might say, the Andrew Lloyd Weber of his day.

With a wife and two small sons to provide for, Weber defied doctors' orders and accepted the commission. The result was his last opera, Oberon, all too rarely performed because Kemble saddled Weber with a stinker of a libretto from his illiterate stage-manager, JR Planché. Soon after conducting its premiere in 1826, Weber died in London five months short of his 40th birthday.

Between Der Freischütz and Oberon, he had written Euryanthe, another piece rendered virtually unstageable by its clunky libretto, although Glyndebourne recently made an attempt to prove otherwise. All three mature Weber operas were heard in Edinburgh last week, each in concert performances by different conductors and companies, in commendable defiance of the usual festival penchant for composers with round-figure anniversaries.

Equally smart programming, to kick off the series, was an ambitious concert of Weber's orchestral works, to showcase not just the German Romantic's vast range and influence, but the care he brought to thinking about each instrument (including the human voice), while writing music to extend its particular charms.

The clarinet and horn being two prime examples, soloists Ronald van Spaendonck and David Pyatt had a whale of a time with the Northern Sinfonia under Thomas Zehetmair working their way through the duets, chamber and orchestral pieces that gave these orchestral Cinderellas rare glimpses of glass slippers. Zehetmair also led his eponymous quartet, with the vivid van Spaendonck, in Weber's Clarinet Quintet, before conducting his exuberant first symphony.

This six-piece concert was a mere hors d'oeuvre to the operatic blowout that followed over three nights in the Usher Hall, the first course served by Charles Mackerras and his Scottish Chamber Orchestra in the shape of Der Freischütz. For once, Festival director Brian McMaster also got the rest of his dream-team casting: Jonas Kaufmann and Hillevi Martinpelto as lovers Max and Agathe, John Relyea and Christopher Maltman as Kaspar and Ottokar, Siegfred Vogel and Ronan Collettas Kuno and Kilian, Ailish Tynan as Annchen.

For my money, this plot is quite as absurd as the others, with its reliance on magic bullets and other such gothic-horror gizmos. Only the hirsute Kaufmann, sporting a wildman look as outlandish as his role, hurled himself into the evening with the requisite abandon: Relyea was too concerned to be charming, Martinpelto too unsure of her command in the top register. The show was stolen by Mackerras and his marvellous players, who squeezed every stave of drama from Weber's luridly romantic score.

No wonder Kemble wanted Weber to lay on mermaids, pirates, fairies, magical scene-shifts and all other conceivable ways of filling the Covent Garden stage with crowd-pulling phantasmagoria. It all remained in the Edinburgh mind's eye as Barry Banks's stalwart Oberon and Anna Burford 's sultry Puck (otherwise unconnected with Shakespeare) masterminded the storm-tossed romance of Peter Bronder's stolid Sir Huon and Elizabeth Whitehouse's stately Reiza. With the dashing Garry Magee wasted as Sherasmin, the evening again belonged to Richard Armstrong's Scottish Opera orchestra and its doomed chorus.

As for Euryanthe... perhaps it was Weber fatigue, but this last and longest of the three evenings proved far the toughest endurance test, as the piece's longueurs were ill-disguised by the American conductor David Robertson, for all the efforts of the BBC Scottish Symphony and competent, if uninspired soloists in Neal Davies (Lysiart), Stewart Skelton (Adolar), Alfred Reiter (King Ludwig), Christine Brewer (Eglantine) and Gabriele Fontana in the title role.

It was a close call between academic interest and musical pleasure throughout this Weber marathon, a rare chance to hear the development of his attempts to drag German singspiel into the 19th century. Performing these last three operas in chronological order might have made more sense.

Highlight of the morning concerts in the Queen's Hall was the first in a series of Schubert recitals by the Georgian pianist Elisabeth Leonskaja, who brought a tender touch and demonic energy to an ambitious programme boasting the Wanderer fantasy between the sonatas in B flat and A, D664. If at times heavy-handed, especially in the bravura sections, and prone to deconstructing slower passages to the point of standstill, Leonskaja conjured some touching lyrical moments while taking an almost worryingly brave approach to those all-important Schubertian silences.

All the more galling that her filigree detail in the Wanderer should have been ruined by a mobile phone; shooting, as one audience member observed, is far too good for these miscreants.

Finally, believe it or not, your critic found a tear in his eye during some contemporary music. This career first, brought on by the exquisite viola playing of Lawrence Power and percussion work of Heather Corbett, came during Rothko Chapel , Morton Feldman's poignant elegy forpainter Mark Rothko.

This haunting 25-minute piece launched a late-night programme in which David Goode's 20-minute rendition of Feldman's organ work Principal Sound left me quite unmoved. But the lachrymose plaints of Power's viola linger still.


Anthony Holden

The GuardianTramp

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