When the late Peter Maxwell Davies founded the St Magnus Festival in Orkney forty years ago, its main raison d’etre was to showcase contemporary music, and the original 1976 Festival, which I attended as a student, was built around a solid spine of Max’s own compositions. The Festival has grown in ways, which its founder could hardly have anticipated, but one very welcome development is the inclusion of a selection of early music.
Organ, Choir and Pipes, St Magnus Cathedral
Orkney’s magnificent Romanesque/Gothic Cathedral plays host to many of the Festival’s events, and Monday 20th June saw us streaming through its red sandstone portal for a concert melding contemporary, early and traditional music. This anniversary year the organisers have ‘updated’ a number of memorable events from 1976, and this concert was an adaptation of a concert for organ, fiddle and pipes. The choir were the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland Voices directed by Tim Dean and it was they who gave us the bulk of the programme’s early content. After a pipe tune and an organ Chaconne based upon it, the voices came as a gentle balm, performing a group of English Renaissance polyphonic motets. Singing from the west end of the Cathedral behind the audience, they opened with a declamatory performance of Tallis’ Sancte Deus, followed by Byrd’s busy Laudibus in sanctis and Sheppard’s ethereal Libera nos. There were lovely passages in all three works, but the positioning of the choir led to some muddiness in the Byrd and after a shaky start, the tuning never fully settled in the Sheppard. Organist Michael Bowtree contributed an impressive performance of Bach’s G-major Prelude and Fugue BWV541, demonstrating just what a fine instrument the Cathedral organ is, and also in my opinion undermining the various other contemporary works he played, making them sound by comparison like rather random ramblings. This was also the case to a certain extent with Max’s O magnum Mysterium, which sounds to me very hard to bring off and not entirely effective, the exact opposite of Victoria’s setting, which we heard later in the programme. A simply stunning anthem by Judith Weir, Ascending into Heaven, saved the honour of contemporary composers, using a range of radical techniques such as tonal clusters and glissandi to remarkable musical effect. A set of pipe tunes, delivered with great virtuosity and overwhelming volume by Pipe Major Laurence Tait softened us up for two motets by Victoria, O magnum mysterium and Alma Redemptoris mater before more contemporary organ music rounded off the event. RCS Voices produce a very pleasant sound, a little too fruity for my taste in the early repertoire with some intrusive vibrato in the tenor and soprano voices, but these young singers are an encouraging indication of the growing importance of early music at the Conservatoire. The northerly latitude f this Festival was brought home to us as we filed out of this late-night event into relative daylight, driving home in the legendary ‘simmer dim’ of the shortest night of the year.
Dido and Aeneas
On Tuesday 21st the Cathedral was again the venue for a triumphant collaboration between the vocal ensemble Voces8 and Florilegium under the direction of Ashley Solomon. Heading the cast as the tragic heroine Dido was operatic soprano Anna Dennis, whose portrayal of the Trojan queen was dramatically mesmerizing and musically stunning. She projected Tate’s subtle dramatic creation with enormous intensity, while enriching Purcell’s vocal lines with subtle ornamentation. In her iconic Lament, her enigmatic expression seemed to demand the audience’s remembrance rather than pleading for it. In costume and ‘off the book’, she was ably supported by the eight versatile singers of Voces8, who with strategic doubling occupied all the other roles. The fact that they were all in ‘civvies’ and reading from scores was not really too off-putting, except perhaps in Dido and Aeneas’ final fiery exchange, when Sam Dressel’s vocal score seriously got in the way. Dressel otherwise gave us a passionate and believable Aeneas, while Barnaby Smith’s venomous Sorceress and Oliver Vincent’s spirited Sailor also deserve special mention. Also worthy of mention was the superb playing of Florilegium, one to a part and superbly dramatic, supportive and pathetic by turns. I was personally delighted to hear lutanist David Miller provide two beautiful guitar grounds where Purcell indicates them, but for which no music survives – in addition to restoring these, Ashley Solomon’s realisation of the score also includes strategic repeats, all of which enhanced the normal printed version. Sometimes performances of music with which one is very familiar can be a disappointment – I prepared my own score for and conducted Dido and Aeneas with the Musick Fyne Chorus and Soloists and The Marvel Baroque Orchestra earlier this year (as well as singing Sorceress!) – but I found this performance consummately excellent and a sheer delight.
Voces8 : Eventide
Fresh from their triumphant Dido and Aeneas, Voces8 next appeared in the Wednesday late-night 10pm slot in St Magnus Cathedral with a programme entitled Eventide. This turned out to be a wide-ranging affair incorporating plainchant and Renaissance choral repertoire, through Romantic and modern music to close harmony. As with Monday evening’s concert, the dual themes of juxtaposition and exploitation of the Cathedral’s architecture were paramount, and the singers started in the apse giving a disembodied account of Orlando Gibbons’ Drop, drop slow tears and Tallis’ O nata Lux, using the O nata lux plainchant to advance into the choirstalls, whence they sang Britten’s youthful Hymn to the Virgin. It soon emerged that the concert would fall into similar units of contrasting music, the next of which framed a very English account of Bogoroditse Devo from Rachmaninov’s All-night Vigil with the two settings by Tallis of Te lucis ante terminum. In honour of the late founder of the Festival, they sang Max’s gentle Lullaby for Lucy, following it with three other secular works, two spirituals and a folksong all in close harmony. The concluding unit presented an arrangement of Fauré’s Pie Jesu and the ubiquitous Allegri Miserere framed in items of chant from the Requiem service, perversely sung in canon, and allowing the singers to again range from the West end to the apse for the Allegri. I find it rather curious that the group chose to construct pseudo-liturgical contexts for works, which of course would never have been heard together, and I have to say I found this and the sheer random eclecticism of the programme disconcerting. However the singing was flawlessly polished and expressive, and the group’s encore, Ola Gjeilo’s Ubi caritas, provided a suitably elegiac ending to the event. I did notice more than one audience member suppress a yawn during the ‘makey-uppy’ Allegri and I wondered idly if its days might be numbered? And my surprise that the singers hadn’t used the performance space to set up the usual contrasting solo and tutti ensembles passed when I realised that, being only eight in number, at least one singer had to sing in both choirs!
Thursday (referendum day) dawned in warmth and sunshine, and it was a wrench to abandon the beach for the dark cave of St Magnus Cathedral for a lunchtime concert by Florilegium – and to judge by a few empty seats, a wrench which some had succumbed to. Hardly had we heard the courtly opening of Telemann’s flute concerto in D and any reservations were forgotten. Ashley Solomon’s delicious flute tone floated above an accompaniment of exquisite delicacy, each note placed to perfection. This is a group which listens and watches constantly, and the result is a heady blend of unanimity and musicianship which is hard to beat. Purcell’s G minor Chacony recalled the group’s superlative playing for Dido and Aeneas two days previously, while the strings burst into a frenzy in an explosive performance of Vivaldi’s Trio Sonata La Folia, which rose to eye-watering peaks of virtuosity. Finally the strings were rejoined by Ashley Solomon for a beautiful rendition of Bach’s 5th Brandenburg Concerto. This work has in effect three soloists, flute, violin and harpsichord, and there is nothing like a live performance to remind one just how radical this solo role for the keyboard is. As Terence Charlston stepped out of the customary continuo shadows with cascades of solistic bravura, we had a glimpse of the sort of swirling improvisation for which Bach was renowned in his lifetime. This was a beautifully poised Brandenburg 5, benefiting from the thorough understanding the group had developed in recently recording the work.
The Hebrides Ensemble & Max
My final concert at the Festival was on a magically still and sunny Thursday evening, when Scotland’s foremost contemporary music ensemble The Hebrides Ensemble reconstructed with one or two variants a concert given forty years previously by The Fires of London. Consisting of modern music, much of it by Max, it only belongs tangentially in this review, but as I attended the original concert in 1976 when it had a major influence on my subsequent career in early music, I thought I would include it. The key works are ‘realisations’ by Max of Scottish Renaissance repertoire at that time recently rediscovered by Dr Kenneth Elliott: Kinloche his Fantasie and the Renaissance Scottish Dances which topped and tailed the concert. Deeply influenced by chant and early music in his own compositions, Max was quick to spot the potential of this charming repertoire. From a keyboard original, he transforms the Fantasie by William Kinloche into a glittering flight of fancy for modern chamber ensemble comprising harpsichord, violin, cello, flute, clarinet and percussion. The same mix of instruments also played the 7 Renaissance Scottish Dances, drawn from Dr Elliott’s 1957 Musica Britannica volume and a collection of early Scottish Keyboard Music he published shortly afterwards. These beguiling miniatures are processed through Max’s fertile imagination into an engaging set of lively and slow contemplative movements, one of them melding two slow airs in a way only Max could have conceived of. Although it was the rest of the modernist programme, bristling with pungent harmonies and virtuosity, which tested the players most, it is the early Scottish realisations which I remembered most vividly from forty years ago, and which brought my festival to a nostalgic conclusion.
D James Ross