Mainly Early Nights in Orkney

D James Ross at the 2018 St Magnus International Festival in Orkney

Sonoro, Rachmaninov Vespers, St Magnus Cathedral
In his opening comments to the 2018 St Magnus International Festival in Orkney, Festival Director Alasdair Nicolson emphasised the need for constant innovation, and indeed a glance through the Festival programme revealed a stimulating selection of contemporary and early chamber music events – perhaps in this respect suggesting a return to the original aims of the event. Having said that, the Festival opened with the Rachmaninov Vespers, a work which could now be regarded as decidedly mainstream. More properly termed the All-Night Vigil, this work nowadays enjoys a degree popularity its composer could hardly have dreamed of, and the choral ensemble Sonoro, founded by their director Neil Ferris in 2016, seemed to have no difficulty in filling St Magnus Cathedral for their performance. But why you may be asking have I included it in my review of early music? Sonoro is by no means an ‘early music’ choir – indeed their group notes declare the aim that ‘each singer be free to use all of their voice.’ The resulting full, dynamically varied sound includes a degree of vibrato, particularly at the upper end, and an element of the operatic. But what could be more authentic for a performance of Rachmaninov? The performance omitted Rachmaninov’s settings of ‘Amen’, which open two of the numbers, thereby neatly sidestepping the issue that Rachmaninov seems to have intended that his work be performed liturgically in sections and in a context of harmonised chant, for which the ‘Amens’ provide a conclusion. On the other hand, the programme notes provided an evocative outline of the liturgical context in which the music belongs. Two wonderfully idiomatic soloists helped to set the scene, while the almost opaque wall-of-sound of the loudest passages contrasted magically with hushed episodes, all moving under Ferris’s direction with an impressive blend and unanimity. If just occasionally the distinctive writing for contrabasses (the distinctive Russian Oktavists) seemed a little under-powered, relying on a single voice, this was a thoroughly convincing performance which brought out the subtle nuances as well as the sheer raw Russian power of Rachmaninov’s remarkable choral masterpiece.

Aarhus Sommeropera & the Danish Sinfonietta, Telemann Pimpinone, The Orkney Theatre
Danish ribaldry was to the fore in Aarhus Sommeropera and the Danish Sinfonietta’s performance of Telemann’s comic opera Pimpinone  in Kirkwall’s magnificent new Orkney Theatre. Sung in a racy new English translation by Christopher Cowell, the sexy maid Vespetta, vivaciously portrayed by Berit Berfred-Jensen, had to outmanoeuvre a computer nerd Pimpinone, played with credible techy awkwardness by Jesper Mikkelsen, kitted out with horrendous ‘Denis Healey’ eyebrows. Both performers proved expert vocalists, giving a sparkling account of Telemann’s witty and fast-moving score. From the huge Baroque frock which parted to reveal Vespetta in scene 1, Jan Magaard’s direction and Ivar Gjerøp’s design, with some witty back-projection also moved slickly and imaginatively, coping as well as can be reasonably expected with the standard modern issue of Baroque comic opera – a surfeit of music and limited action and narrative drive. (Might it have been worth considering not slavishly singing da capos  of every single aria?)

The strings of the Danish Sinfonietta under the detailed direction of David Riddell provided able and highly sympathetic support, as well as contributing appropriate instrumental episodes. Telemann had composed his comic opera as an interval entertainment between the acts of Handel’s opera seria Tamerlano, but in the way of such things it was the interlude which caught the public imagination, and soon it was being played on its own. To accommodate this new circumstance, the ever-versatile Telemann instructed that instrumental music be played between the three scenes, and in this performance the Danish Sinfonietta obliged with Telemann’s D major Violin Concerto, which the composer had written for the intervals of Richard Keiser’s opera seria Nebucadnezar. The solo part was played in beautifully authentic Baroque style by Mo Yi, who reprised her winning account of the work in the Sinfonietta’s two concerts later in the Festival. Incidentally, the Sinfonietta’s delightful recital in the Cromarty Hall in charming St Margaret’s Hope also featured two fine arias, which Telemann had composed for interpolation into his production of Keiser’s Nebucadnezar. Operatic composition is one of the few aspects of Telemann’s career which has not yet received its due attention in modern times, and Aarhus Sommeropera and the Danish Sinfonietta have made a convincing case for his operas being brought more generally into the spotlight.

Ensemble Perpetuo, Goldberg Variations plus, St Magnus Cathedral
Late-night concerts in the magnificent 12th-century Cathedral of St Magnus featuring esoteric repertoire have become a feature of the Festival, and my next concert was a performance by Ensemble Perpetuo of the string trio arrangement by Dmitri Sitkovetsky of Bach’s Goldberg Variations. This was preceded by a sequence of five freshly commissioned works by contemporary composers, inspired by the Bach – highlights for me were a toe-tapping reel by Alasdair Nicolson and a beguiling lullaby by Donald Grant, which led movingly and seamlessly into the Goldberg Aria. The Bach drew considerable virtuosity from violinist Fenella Humphreys, violist Simon Tandrëe and cellist Cara Berridge, but the decision to play the whole programme as one continuous span placed huge demands of stamina and concentration on all three, and occasionally the intonation suffered a little. However, the commendably authentic Baroque approach to the Bach, with minimal vibrato and tasteful ornamentation, made this a very powerful cumulative experience, enhanced as we walked out of the Cathedral well after 11pm into a magically light Orkney summer night.

The Alehouse Sessions, Barokksolistene, Stromness Town Hall
The Barokksolistene is a remarkable ensemble, who under the direction of Bjarte Eike stage highly animated period instrument performances of Baroque music. Their three presentations at the Festival proved to be nothing less than mesmerising, a thoroughly integrated blend of top quality authentic performance (all played from memory), theatre, dance, story-telling and thematic deconstruction. Their first show in Stromness Town Hall, The Alehouse Sessions, took as its thesis the fact that with the advent of the Cromwellian Commonwealth court and theatre musicians deprived of employment took to taverns where they played and sang for a new audience. Drawing on popular material, particularly from Playford’s Dancing Master  and Purcell’s compositions as well as music by Neil Gow, they gave extended treatments on ensembles of stringed instruments, strutting all the while around the stage like rock stars. Steven Player stepped out of the ensemble to present a series of stunning period dances, while Thomas Guthrie put down his Baroque violin to sing a few songs with a very pleasing voice, while inhabiting utterly and passionately the texts he was singing. With more than a passing resemblance to comedian Harry Hill, the multitalented Guthrie held the audience spellbound. This wonderfully organic performance, ranging from the deeply touching to the downright bawdy, ended appropriately enough with an ingenious slow-motion tavern brawl!

Purcell’s Playground, Barokksolistene, St Magnus Cathedral
Their next performance in St Magnus Cathedral saw them bring a little more decorum to the music of Purcell. More superb playing, wonderful singing and dynamic dancing, but this time something quite intriguing – a Purcell air was slowly deconstructed as the players moved off the stage and moved around the cathedral, before both music and ensemble moved back into place again. It has to be said not everyone was convinced by this radical approach to early music, and I would have to mention the modern string bass and modern percussion, which appeared side-by-side with the authentic gut-strung violins, viola and cello and baroque guitars and portative organ/ harpsichord, but I have to say I was completely won over. As with all three concerts, the price of a wonderful spontaneity was some ambiguity as to just what was being performed – I gathered from one of the group members that the ensemble have around three hours of music in reserve for an hour-long concert from which the programme is selected on the night. When I asked how they managed to hold in mind all the scores as well as complex choreography and a number of other tricks, such as the risky trick of freezing and then resuming in complete unanimity, my ‘mole’ simply and modestly told me they had been playing it all for a long time! In addition to the tour de force of the remarkably deconstructed piece, I was also moved almost to tears by the group’s account of the C-minor Fantasia no 7 where each passing discord was unbearably heartfelt in a way I have never experienced before.

Tall Ship Tunes, Barokksolistene, Statsraad Lehmkuhl
The venue for the group’s third concert had impressively arrived in Kirkwall Harbour just two hours before the concert – it was the magnificent Norwegian tall ship Statsraad Lehmkuhl! Recalling the Festival’s declared mission of innovation, to secure the participation of this wonderfully relevant venue for a programme by the Barokksolistene of Tall Ship Tunes  was a real coup. Employing their customary heady blend of dance, song and instrumental music, the group performed sea shanties, hornpipes and international reels to a highly appreciative audience, augmented by some of the crew of the sailing ship, who joined in lustily with the shanties! The Barokksolistene with their stunning individual virtuosity and flawless sense of ensemble, their versatility and their sheer personable enthusiasm have been the revelation of this year’s St Magnus International Festival for me.

This wonderful latterday concert flottant  highlighted one of the issues which the Festival faces. While the attractive and small-scale venue afforded by the tall ship had sold out early, few of the other events I attended were filled to capacity, the result, I understand, of increased ticket prices – the reluctant response in turn to reduced funding. It seems to me an enormous shame if this distinctive Festival in its 41st year, problematically remote geographically but which makes superb use of its distinctive island environs, is to be starved of funding. This was a week buzzing with innovation, and I truly hope that the St Magnus International Festival will be allowed to remain the jewel that it is in the crown of Scotland’s Festival circuit.

One thought on “Mainly Early Nights in Orkney

  • July 18, 2018 at 12:39 pm
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    Thanks for very kind and well informed words about our concerts at the St Magnus Festival. It’s very rewarding to get reviews by writers that really care to get deeply into the music and understand what we try to achieve.
    There’s a tiny fact I’d like to point out, though: Just like my fellow string players, I play on gut strings, two of them plain and two metal wound. Maybe the fact that I often (especially when playing pizzicato) choose a rather jazzy sound made you think the stringing was all modern. Anyways I’m very happy that we managed to win you over!
    Thanks and all the best / Johannes Lundberg, bass player with Barokksolistene

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