Scotland’s heritage in the game of golf notwithstanding, alternating woodwinds, duelling strings and bagpipes are par for the course in Peter Maxwell Davies’ An Orkney Wedding, with Sunrise. Much as the work has been around since its debut with John Williams and the Boston Pops more than three decades ago, a work of such graphic vivacity is not usual fare in the repertoire of the Hong Kong Philharmonic, but in choosing it to open his “Scottish Fantasy” evening, Principal Guest Conductor Long Yu played to his strength.

Long Yu © Askonas Holt
Long Yu
© Askonas Holt

Written to depict the wedding of friends Jack and Dorothy Rendall on the island of Hoy in the composer’s adopted home in Orkney, the boisterous work traces the all-night celebrations, starting quite calmly with the arrival of the first guests but getting gradually out of hand as the abundant flow of alcohol takes its toll. Guests reluctantly walk home across the island to a rising sun over Caithness.

After a rapid descent on frenzied strings the woodwinds took turns to lay out a lilting tune with a typical Scotch snap rhythm that underpins most of the work. Tutti strings happily persisted in a toe-tapping Highland dance, beating off interruptions of disorderly brass with the help of abundant percussion. After a duel between solo violin and pizzicato cello, the dance began to get wobbly as the brass showed signs of a nervous breakdown. Coming to the rescue, from the back of the hall, were bagpipes in the hands of Robert Jordan in full tartan regalia. Despite what sounded like a rather rushed entry, Long Yu captured the proceedings of the wedding with panache. Some of the alcohol-induced chaos could have been more warped, but the atmosphere of celebration was infectious and the individual players had plenty of room to shine. The bagpipes, of course, were the real gem of surprise.

A veil of calm descended as the orchestra switched gear into the ponderous opening of the Scottish Fantasy by Bruch. Just as we were settling down into the darkness of the mood, soloist Ning Feng jolted us out of our comfort with his anguished entry. His tempo was perhaps a tad fast, but we could not help being captured by his silky and warm tone as he expounded on more nostalgic melancholy inspired by Walter Scott’s description of an “old bard who contemplates a ruined castle and laments the glorious times of old”. It was as if the solo violin truly sang the spirit of the Adagio cantabile.

The Scherzo second movement showcased some superb and versatile ensemble playing by the orchestra, handling a variety of pacing with aplomb. The soloist’s flawless handling of pianissimo high notes and double stops put paid to any doubts about his mastery of the instrument, but it was in the duo with the flute that his delicate touch most clearly came to the fore. After rounds of ovation summonsed Ning Feng back to the stage, he lamented the dearth of encore material for the violin – either Bach or Paganini, he said, and asked the audience to vote. For another five minutes he regaled us with an acrobatic display of parallel octaves and left-hand pizzicato in the Paganini Caprice no. 24.

Mendelssohn claimed to have found the beginning of his “Scottish symphony” in the ruins of the chapel where Mary, the Queen of Scots was crowned. Yet the lapse of time between his visit and completion of the Symphony no. 3 makes one wonder whether the work deserves to carry the “Scottish” moniker. Unlike An Orkney Wedding and Scottish Fantasy, it does not borrow blatantly from Scottish melodies or rhythms as much as it records the composer’s reactions to the scenes and people he encountered on his journey.

The brooding orchestral introduction of lingering and wistful lilts in the first movement gave way to plenty of tumultuous and rambunctious material that evoked the temperamental climate of Scotland. The galloping clarinet catapulted the second movement into lively capers that maintain strong forward momentum. The Adagio cantabile third movement opened up expansive passages of hymnal praise rather than mourning.

The first part of the finale, marked Allegro vivacissimo, abounded in nuggets of melodic cheer, but as proceedings slowed down the elusive clarinet helped it morph into a majestic declaration of triumph, with horns in full blast. Long Yu kept a tight rein on pacing, as he is wont to do, but allowed good space for spontaneous sparkle, especially among the woodwinds. A burnished tone brought the full palette of orchestral colours to life, expressive but soothing at the same time. In the end, it was a triumph for Mendelssohn, and for the Hong Kong Phil.

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