Haydn’s Surprise Symphony was the first work to be played at the very first Edinburgh Festival concert in August 1947. And it was the opener for the first concert at this year’s - seventy years later. I was born just a fortnight before the 1947 concert but I had heard all about it from a Reuters and then edinburghguide.com colleague, Jim Forrester, who died last year. I succeeded Jim. As a student too poor to buy a ticket, Jim was paid a pittance to sell the programmes but got to hear the concert. As a reviewer he was for ever proud have been there at the beginning.
Pablo Heras Casado was conducting the Scottish Chamber Orchestra for the first time. Whether Haydn introduced the unexpected fortissimo chord in the Andante to awaken his listeners is open to question, but that’s where the Symphony gets its title. Our conductor produced the surprise fractionally ahead of what was written for the Andante second movement. Purists around me were bothered, but he was stamping his identity.
Felix Mendelssohn wrote his symphony-cantata in 1840 to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the invention of the Gutenberg Press, with its moveable type. After the composer’s death it became known as his Symphony No 2. Pablo Heras Casado is a Mendelssohn specialist. A larger than normal Scottish Chamber Orchestra briskly worked its way through the movements of the Sinfonia building up our expectation of what the 120 or more singers, the Edinburgh Festival Chorus and three soloists, were ever so ready to sing.
If I have a favourite Psalm it must be 150, if only because it’s one of the most joyful and shortest. Passages from nine Psalms and other texts came from both the Old and New Testaments; it was Psalm 150 which began and ended the work. Both soprano soloists, Dorothea Röschmann at the top end and Emma Bell distinguishably lower, were good. Tenor Werner Güra’s voice was perfectly testing at ‘we wandered in darkness’ from Psalm 116. It helped to have Martin Bawtree at the Usher Hall’s organ. We were taken through times of biblical troubles and tribulations, to death and awakening of the dead, to darkness and the Watchman. Christopher Bell, the chorus master, had trained his choir to lead us to a great place. And this was Martin Rinckart’s Lutheran chorale of 1636 Nun danket alle Gott. Already very familiar in Mendelssohn’s time it was the centre piece, the glory we were waiting for. And shortly afterwards the chorus were singing ‘Everything that has breath praise the Lord. Hallelujah!’ What could be a better motto for this year’s International Festival.
Performance: Saturday 5th August 2017 at 8pm.