Classical music at the 2017 Edinburgh International Festival: A Beginners Guide

Classical music at the 2017 Edinburgh International Festival: A Beginners Guide

Stuart Skelton / Sim Canetty-Clarke

Want to hear some classical music at the EIF, but don't know what to go to? Try these

The Edinburgh International Festival has announced its 2017 programme, and as always there's a generous and diverse spread of classical music events. Those who regularly attend classical music at the EIF can see at a glance what attracts them and what doesn't, and will already be checking their bank accounts and making bookings.

But what about others? People who are curious about classical music, and who want a chance to get to know it better, but who don't know their Pärt from their L'Orfeo? How are they to tell what events are most suited to an enthusiastic but uninformed listener, the kind of person who thinks that 'da capo' is how a Russian mobster says yes to his boss?

We have the answers. Here, in chronological order, is a selection of classical music events in this year's EIF, chosen according to their likely accessibility to those without much knowledge of classical music. This is not a question of quality: the entire programme is, as always, a glittering array of world-class talent. It's about which events we think the novice listener are most likely to find intelligible and entertaining.

We've left out a lot. Wagner's Die Walküre (Usher Hall, Sun 6 Aug) is a great opera, but if we're talking about throwing people in at the deep end, with all due respect to the Royal Scottish National Opera and conductor Sir Andrew Davis, it's five hours deep. Similarly, while we mean no disrespect to the many great soloists on the programme, two hours of unfamiliar piano music can be a little indigestible to those used to piano music in five-minute bites.

This is not a highlights selection with training wheels, though–there are some thorny works in here, along with plenty of tunes, drama and diversity. If these sound interesting check out the EIF's full programme.

The Edinburgh Musical Society
Ensemble Marsyas, under the direction of Peter Whelan, delivers a recreation of an 18th century Edinburgh musical evening in the newly restored St Cecilia's Hall, with guest mezzo-soprano Emilie Renard and music by Barsanti, Handel, Arne and Gluck.
Chosen because: It's classical music through and through, no Romantic extravagances to make you lose your thread; plus, it's only an hour long.
St Cecilia's Hall, Tue 8 Apr, £25

Karen Cargill & Simon Lepper

Scottish mezzo-soprano Cargill and accompanist Lepper perform late Romantic French chansons by Debussy, Chausson, Duparc and Hahn.
Chosen because: Have you ever heard late Romantic French chansons? This is music to take someone on a third date to, if you know what we mean.
The Queen's Hall, Thu 10 Aug, £9–£32.50

German tenor Julian Prégardien and colleagues Marc Hantaï (flute), Philippe Pierlot and Xavier Diaz-Latorre (baryton) recreate a Viennese salon from Schubert's time, with music and poetry. Kind of like the Edinburgh Musical Society concert, but strictly Vienna this time.
Chosen because: It's a piquant instrumental combination and you don't see a lot of concerts like this one.
St Cecilia's Hall, Thu 10 Aug, £25

Peter Grimes
If you've never seen an opera, let it be this one, even if it's not a staged performance but a concert one (no sets, it's just sung.) Benjamin Britten's 1945 tale of a fisherman nobody likes is a gripping picture of persecution and mental breakdown, and Grimes himself is one of the great operatic roles of the 20th century. Edward Gardner conducts Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus, with Aussie tenor Stuart Skelton (pictured) in the title role.
Chosen because: Britten is one of the most direct and accessible of 20th century composers, and unlike other operas in the EIF programme, this one's in English.
Usher Hall, Sun 13 Aug, £15–£50

If you want to go right back to the source, you can't beat Monteverdi's L'Orfeo. Although not the first opera ever written it's the first great one, a turbulent and moving dramatisation of the story of Orpheus and Eurydice, here presented by the mighty English Baroque Soloists under the baton of John Eliot Gardner.
Chosen because: It's no period piece, but the opera that made other composers want to write operas.
Usher Hall, Mon 14 Aug, £13–£47

Robert Burns: Chains and Slavery
This is a collaboration between poet and Makar Jackie Kay, composer Sally Beamish, singer-songwriter Ghetto Priest, bass Brian Bannatyne-Scott and countertenor David James, with members of the Scottish Ensemble. The programme consists of a new setting by Beamish of Burns's 'The Slave's Lament', along with a poem by Kay and a performance of Arvo Pärt's setting of Burns's 'My Heart's In The Highlands'.
Chosen because: It's got new music, it's got Jackie Kay, and if you don't want to hear Ghetto Priest singing Robert Burns there's something wrong with you.
Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Thu 17–Fri 18 Aug, £25

This film by Gerry Fox features a score for full orchestra by Ned Bigham, and it explores the Hebridean isle of Staffa, which inspired one of the best-loved masterpieces of 19th century music, Felix Mendelssohn's Hebrides Overture. It's showing as an installation in the National Library of Scotland, and the film will be screened with a live score as part of the Festival's closing concert on Sun 27 Aug.
Chosen because: It's new music, it's free, and you can walk in off the street to experience it.
National Library of Scotland, Thu 17–Sun 27 Aug, free

Chiaroscuro Quartet
The Chiaroscuro Quartet, led by violinist extraordinaire Alina Ibragimova, plays string quartet music with singular rawness and intensity. This concert features music by Bach, Haydn and, to round it off, Schubert's brooding String Quartet No 14 'Death and the Maiden'.
Chosen because: It's a great programme and if this doesn't convert you to Schubert, nothing will.
The Queen's Hall, Fri 18 Aug, £9–£32.50

Trio Zimmermann
It is almost impossible to have too much Bach, and the great thing about a set of variations is that they teach you how to listen to them. This concert features an arrangement by Dmitri Sitkovetsky of Bach's exhilarating masterpiece the Goldberg Variations, as well as the most forbidding work in these highlights, Arnold Schoenberg's harrowing String Trio.
Chosen because: Because Bach. Also, because the Schoenberg was written as a portrait in sound of its composer's near-fatal 1946 heart attack: rock and roll!
The Queen's Hall, Wed 23 Aug, £9–£32.50

Joshua Bell Plays Bruch
The American violinist Joshua Bell is one of the superstars of classical music, and here he's at the helm of the Academy of St Martin-in-the-Fields for an evening of open space and high spirits. Bruch's Scottish Fantasy is followed by Beethoven's ridiculously tuneful Symphony No 6.
Chosen because: Beethoven's Sixth, as well as being the musical equivalent of a bracing walk in the hills, is one of those works that makes you go 'Oh, that's where that's from.'
Usher Hall, Thu 24 Aug, £13–£47

Edinburgh International Festival

Bringing world-class arts to the capital since 1947, the EIF sets the standard for classical concerts, opera, dance and theatre, while it's recently also added an excellent contemporary music strand.