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Seen and Heard Festival Review


28th St. Magnus Festival, Orkney Islands: 18 – 23 June 2004 (JW)


The St. Magnus Festival invariably produces a unique atmosphere, and often includes unique events. These thoughts were prompted by this year’s community project: an adaptation of Ibsen’s Peer Gynt, with music by Kenneth Dempster, who conducted the performance, and libretto by Cengiz Saner, who directed. The project was probably more ambitious than anything previously attempted, involving a large number of primary school children, an adult cast, an off-stage chorus and substantial ensemble. The result may not prove as memorable as the production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or the adaptation of George Mackay Brown’s novel, Greenvoe, in previous years, but the organisation of the event was immense.


The work was described as an opera, but there was more spoken content than music, especially in the second half. Moreover, some of the spoken dialogue was drowned by the ensemble in the indifferent acoustic of the Pickaquoy Centre. Nevertheless, Graham Garson and Bob Ross, who shared the role of Peer Gynt, were impressive, as was Dave Grieve as King Brose, King of the trolls. There were equally significant contributions from Ishbel Fraser and Anna Whelan, who shared the role of Solveig, and Carolyn Chalmers, who was Ase – Peer’s mother. Ultimately, the venture was a considerable triumph of teamwork.


The Russian patriarchate Choir of Moscow conducted by Anatoly Grindenko – a group of twelve male voices, some of whom functioned as soloists – gave their main concerts on the first two days, but visited the Island of Flotta later in the Festival. Their first programme was a late-night presentation of the Liturgy of the Feast for the Protecting Veil of the Mother of God. It was a highly dynamic and complex musical sequence involving an hour’s continuous, concentrated, unaccompanied singing. The event was far more convincing than their second programme the following evening, largely devoted to short, mainly popular items.


Another Russian soloist was featured in the first of the Stromness recitals on 19 June, when the violinist Ilya Gringolts was partnered by Alexander Madzar. Gringolt’s interpretation of J. S. Bach’s Solo Sonata in C lacked a strong presence, but matters improved in Beethoven’s Sonata Op. 30 No. 1 in A. Gringolts and Madzar were at their best in Ravel’s posthumous Violin Sonata, a single-movement work dating from 1897. In Schumann’s Sonata no. 2 in D minor they showed how close Schumann came to the manner of Brahms’ three examples.


The second Stromness event, the following day, was a piano recital by Jean-Philippe Collard. A group of Fauré items: two Barcarolles, a Nocturne and an Impromptu, revealed Collard at his best, closely followed by a slightly under-powered ‘reading’ of Ravel’s Alborada del Gracioso. Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition provided undeniable excitement in the second half, but a few stray notes crept in at the climaxes.


Mozart’s Coronation Mass was the choice for this year’s offering by the St. Magnus Festival Chorus, with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra conducted by James Grossmith. Not quite one of Mozart’s finest creations, but the Chorus did as much with it as was humanly possible and were joined by a fine solo quartet, especially the soprano, Elizabeth Atherton. Ilan Volkov conducted the rest of the programme. The Variations for Orchestra by Luigi Dallapiccola – a transcription of his piano work, Quaderno Musicale di Annalibera – was an appropriate choice, as 2004 is the centenary of this much-underrated composer. Volkov, and the soloist, Lawrence Power, concluded with a volcanic account of Berlioz’ Harold in Italy.


Ilya Gringolts was altogether more convincing as soloist in Elgar’s Violin Concerto, which formed the second half of the second concert, again conducted by Volkov. Conductor and soloist eliminated some of the English aspects of Elgar’s score, thereby emphasising its Austro-German qualities. There was also a distinctly Austro-German tinge to Alexander Goehr’s Overture with Handelian Air from Second Musical Offering Op. 71, together with an occasional similarity of scoring to Dallapiccola’s Variations. Goehr, however, used a typical Handel overture as the structural model of his composition, and then re-composed an aria from a keyboard suite in his own manner, but with definite Handel overtones.


The remaining work was Schumann’s Fourth Symphony in the original version. The thick orchestration of the second version was thus avoided, but despite his best efforts, Volkov could not conceal some of the clumsy gear-changes of Schumann’s first attempt. Perhaps there is a case for combining the original orchestration with some of the smoother transitions of the later score.


St. Magnus Cathedral was the perfect venue for Giya Kancheli’s hour-long Exile, for soprano, ensemble and tape, performed by Mr McFall’s Chamber. The work’s presentation as a Sunday late-night event was equally appropriate. Exile was as much a ritual as a composition, setting Psalm 23, as well as verses by Paul Celan and Hans Sahl. Its five sections were demarcated by a brief motif on tape so that ultimately it was cyclic in form. However, in a less sympathetic setting, it may prove unduly repetitive. Susan Hamilton was the impressive soloist.


Members of the Nash Ensemble were particularly active during the second half of this year’s Festival, which was substantially devoted to celebrations marking the 70th birthday of Peter Maxwell Davies. On 21 June they accompanied his narration of Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf. Max hardly had the vocal range of a trained actor, but he enjoyed himself, and the ensemble certainly entered in the spirit of the occasion.


They were also responsible for the same evening’s late-night concert. Britten’s Three Divertimenti outlined many characteristics of his mature style, yet presented in a form that was less predictable than in many later works. Ian Brown was the soloist in Mozart’s Piano Quartet in G minor, K 478, but the highlight was Louis Spohr’s relatively familiar Nonet, Op. 31. It suggested that in Spohr’s vast output, there must surely be a few works of comparable stature.


On 22 June, the Pupils of Kirkwall Grammar School revived Maxwell Davies’ opera for young people, The Two Fiddlers, to a text by George Mackay Brown. There was a feeling that the instrumentalists did not quite match previous performances, but the two main protagonists playing Gavin and Storm Kolson added some adept fiddling to their acting and singing accomplishments.


The Nash Ensemble presented the main evening concert. The highlight was the world premiere of Maxwell Davies’ Seven Skies of Winter for a mixed ensemble of seven players. Structurally, this was a slightly unusual piece for Max in that it began abruptly. Also, although he derived the work from one of his favourite plainchants Dum Complerentur Dies Pentecostes, there were few traces of this, apart from a possible suggestion at the quiet conclusion. There were also brief birthday greetings from five fellow composers, all Scottish, except Simon Holt. The most attractive offering was a little trio by James MacMillan – a tonal piece, but in MacMillan’s idiosyncratic manner.


The second half was devoted to Dvorak’s Op. 77 String Quintet. It received a polished interpretation, as one might expect, but this faded from the memory alongside the rustic energy of later performances of the same work by young professionals at the Mendelssohn on Mull Festival.


Two events stood out on the final day. Members of the Nash Ensemble opened the lunchtime programme with Max’s comparatively recent Piano Trio "A Journey to Fair Isle", a slightly surprising piece in which the discourse was suddenly interrupted by a solo violin cadenza based on a fiddle tune from Fair Isle. The main item was Elgar’s Piano Quintet, given as committed a performance one is likely to encounter. Meanwhile, the wind players presented a programme in St. Margaret’s Hope.


The birthday celebrations reached their culmination in the final concert, with Maxwell Davies conducting the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. They were preceded by the Sanday Fiddle Club, who played the Six Sanday Tunes Max wrote for them shortly after settling on the island. There followed A Reel of Seven Fishermen, again based on a Mackay Brown text. In earlier performances the concluding clarinet tune seemed disembodied from the main argument. On this occasion, however, it was fully integrated.


Jean-Philippe Collard provided an adequate interpretation of Mozart’s A major Piano Concerto, K 488, but the orchestra was again at its best in Maxwell Davies’ An Orkney Wedding with Sunrise. On the evidence of their Festival concerts, the BBC Scottish are currently the best band in the BBC. The programme finished with a surprise birthday greeting from the Kirkwall Town Bagpipe Band.


Several events featured local musicians, including young performers, plus the usual literary items. This year’s resident poet was Liz Lochhead; the Johnsmas Foy was devoted to the poetry as well as a short play by George Mackay Brown; and The Walk The Plank Theatre Ship returned with their adaptation of 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea. The Festival also visited a number of the smaller islands as part of its Festival on Tour scheme.


Finally, the second year of the ten-day Conducting Course was at least as successful as in 2003, with Sian Edwards joining Martyn Brabbins and Charles Peebles. The Course attracted an enthusiastic group of observers from the outset, and this year they displayed even greater zeal. They have been prepared to forego many lunchtime concerts in order to follow proceedings.


Plans for next year’s Festival are already well underway, with Ian Ritchie taking over as Festival Director for a year. His plans cover a wide variety of events, including community projects, with a greater emphasis on new music than for some years. They include two new works by Maxwell Davies, The Fall of the Leaf, for the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, and A Sad Pavan for these Distracted Times – a test piece for the Paulo Borciani String Quartet Competition in Milan. The winners of the Competition will bring the work to the Festival for the British premiere.


John Warnaby


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