Sex and Alienation in Edinburgh

The musical partnership of Mark Padmore and Kristian Bezuidenhout is one which through a series of definitive Lieder recordings and concert tours has become synonymous with excellence. Thus it was that I approached their Queen’s Hall recital at this year’s Edinburgh International Festival with sky-high expectations.

The programme featured some of my favourite songs, Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte  and Schubert’s Schwanengesang, as well as some less familiar Beethoven songs. These opened the recital, establishing Padmore’s gloriously intense lyrical tone and Bezuidenhout’s delicate and authoritative touch upon the fortepiano, a copy by Rodney Regier (revised by Beunk and Wennink) of an instrument of 1824 by the Viennese maker Conrad Graf. Padmore’s perfect control of his head register led to some sublime moments in Beethoven’s Abendlied, and prepared us for a beautifully poised account of An die ferne Geliebte  which exploited fully the contrasts between the work’s dynamic passages and its more contemplative episodes.

The second half of the concert was devoted to Schubert’s Schwanengesang, less the valedictory song cycle that the title promises than a posthumous marketing opportunity for the publisher Hasslinger, who on the composer’s death simply lumped together all the remaining Schubert songs he had on his books. This rather unpromising context doesn’t prevent Schwanengesang  from gripping, moving and charming the listener by turns, but the challenge for great performers is to mould the music into some sort of unified cycle. Rather than being apologetic about the contrast between the texts by the great Heine and the less-than-great Rellstab, the performers simply gave each their due respect, performing each for what they are.

Where the Beethoven had been lyrically engaging, the duo’s account of Schwanengesang  took us into a whole new realm of expression. We were reminded that this was music written in a city where barely a century later high society would be queuing up at the door of Sigmund Freud, and Padmore and Bezuidenhout took us on a dark exploration of the desperation, alienation and mania that lurks just under the surface of many of Schubert’s settings of Heine. The percussive potential of the fortepiano and Padmore’s rich palette of vocal tones combined to produce almost overwhelming tension. We almost needed the sunny world of the Rellstab settings as an antidote. In response to thunderous applause from a discerning Queen’s Hall audience, the pair brought this powerful recital to an enigmatic conclusion with a mesmerising account of Beethoven’s Resignation, a song setting a text by Friedrich von Haugwitz in which the poet reluctantly accepts his lot in life – almost the finale to Schwanengesang that Schubert was unable to write.


My second visit to the 2016 EIF saw me at the opera for a performance of Mozart’s Cosi fan Tutte. All very conventional you may think, but not so. This was a production of the Festival d’Aix-en-Provence, Korea National Opera and EIF featuring the Cape Town Opera Chorus, The Freiburger Barockorchester and a stellar line-up of soloists directed by Jérémie Rohrer. Da Ponte’s dark comedy of manners is transported to pre-war Abyssinia under Italian occupation, a point established from the start by a parched north-African set and an opening anti-Mussolini satirical song played on a gramophone.

So not Mozart as we know it. But to deal with the positive aspects first this beautifully nuanced performance was archetypal Mozart in almost every respect. Sandrine Piau’s coquettish Despina and Rod Gilfry’s raddled Don Alfonso were perfect foils for one another, while the dashing young lovers Joel Prieto and Nathuel di Piero and their ‘intendeds’ Lenneke Ruiten and Kate Lindsey were technically and musically superb. In the pit the authentic sounds of the Freiburger Barockorchester lent true authority to the overall sound and the evening was an unalloyed musical delight.

BUT – and it is no mean but – the production was problematic. In advance of the run we had all been sent a letter warning us about its explicit sexual nature, and indeed it seemed as if quite a number of the potential audience members voted with their feet, opting for a refund. My objections, however, stemmed not from prudery but from the fact that the transfer of context simply didn’t work. The casual racial and sexual abuse of the local Africans was disturbing, and the heroes’ transformation into black soldiers was startling, but ultimately this attempt to add morally unsettling depths to da Ponte’s rather trivial story foundered on the fact that this is very much a light if cynical comedy. The necessary slapstick moments hopelessly defused any sexual tension, and some of the more graphic onstage displays were simply embarrassing – no sex please, we’re British!

As one audience member put it succinctly to me, ‘If you are aspiring to Mozart’s sound-world in the pit and musically onstage, why not go the whole hog and present the whole opera as he conceived it?’ Why not indeed. It was not quite a production to listen to with closed eyes, as the set and direction were both visually pleasing, but the chief delights were in the sounds of the period instruments expertly played, Rohrer’s crisp direction and the lovely supple voices of the young cast.

D James Ross