SCO, Gamba. Bartok. Maxwell Davies. Sibelius. (Queen’s Hall: 1 Dec.’16)

Map of Orkney

“A complete and wonderful surprise … much of it was huge fun, and what was more serious was beautifully and movingly interpreted.”

Editorial Rating:  5 Stars: Outstanding

The concert was promoted as “Peter Maxwell Davies: Orkney Wedding” and thereby probably did itself a disservice, as ‘Max’ is not everyone’s cup of tea, which is a shame, as if his work was better known, it might well be. The concert was in fact only half ‘Max’, balanced with Sibelius and Bartok, was mostly very accessible and enjoyable, and made for a fabulous evening’s music.

The concert was in effect a musical treatment of the folk idiom over some 80 years, starting with Sibelius’s Valse Triste and Scene with Cranes, both from Kuolema (1903), although the former is probably best known in its own right. Valse Triste was historically Sibelius’s most regularly performed piece, with the double irony of it being composed while he put his magnificent Violin Concerto on hold in order to placate his brother in law who wanted some incidental music for a play, and more annoyingly that he failed to negotiate a royalty agreement and never received a kroner subsequently. It is a fairly light yet sublimely melodic piece and the SCO played it beautifully managing the many varying tempi and dynamics with complete ease.

The following work, Peter Maxwell Davies’s Strathclyde Concerto No 2 (1987) was probably the only work of hard substance in the evening. One of ten “Strathclyde Concertos” commissioned by Strathclyde Regional Council and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, it is part of their DNA and the SCO embraced its challenging tonality and technical demands skilfully. Moreover, cellist William Conway, who played on its first performance in 1989, was completely at ease with the work. While definitely in the modern idiom it is an accessible and at times beautiful and certainly moving work, and it was good to hear it.

Following the interval it was time for Bartok’s Divertimento for String Orchestra, having gone back 50 years to 1939. Beautifully orchestrated, we experienced a wide range of textures including witty pizzicato and rich, broad bowing producing resonant sonority. The orchestra was going at full tilt with attack and vitality of playing. A rewarding, and again, accessible work.

The concert was brought to an end with the banner piece, Maxwell Davies’s Orkney Wedding with Sunrise (1984). This is not a serious work, but a hilarious one, and shows one should not take all of Max’s Orkney compositions too seriously. The piece does what it says on the tin, describes a riotous rustic wedding, and Gamba and the SCO interpreted it in that spirit, with outrageously vulgar brass, deliberately tipsy violin playing, and a steward appearing with a couple of tumblers of whisky gratefully consumed by conductor and leader. The whole was brought to a glorious conclusion by the sound of the bagpipes off stage, and then a piper appearing in full Highland Dress and Bearskin brought the piece to a close.

Overall, the evening was a complete and wonderful surprise. All the music was accessible, much of it was huge fun, and what was more serious was beautifully and movingly interpreted. And Rumon Gamba was a stand in for the indisposed Alexandre Bloch. Bravo (which resounded throughout the auditorium)!


Reviewer: Charles Stokes (Seen 1 December)

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