Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, Scottish Chamber Orchestra composer in residence in the late 1980s, seemed an appropriate choice to write a piece for this, the orchestra’s 40th anniversary year. As the title suggests, Concert Overture: Ebb of Winter was written during the approach of Spring this year and portrays the changing seasons in Maxwell Davies’ adopted homeland of Orkney. As many visitors know, these changes can occur from hour to hour and the piece reflects Orkney’s constantly changing climatic canvas. Contrasting textures included: horns with pizzicato strings; calmly bowed strings, whose frequently returning harmonies suggested a non-threatening darkness; solo oboe beautifully played by Robin Williams; animated horns topped with Peter Franks’ and Shaun Harrold’s impressive trumpet lines, the frenetic angularity of which reminded me of modern improvising players such as the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra’s Ryan Quigley, who has often occupied the same square metre of Queen’s Hall stage.

Peter Maxwell Davies © Martin Lengemann
Peter Maxwell Davies
© Martin Lengemann

In his own programme note, Maxwell Davies mentioned that, in addition to climate, the piece is “influenced by Orkney folk music”. As far as I could ascertain in this world première no tunes were quoted – more the spirit and style of these islands, which can feel as Norse as they do Scottish. The short-long pairing of the Scotch snap, which features in Scottish speech rhythms, as well as the Highland dance known as the Strathspey, supplied a very useful musical function – to put a spring in the step of music whose tempo seems not especially brisk. A glockenspiel passage suggested sunlight refracted through rain drops. For a moment, I feared that the work was going to end on a held major chord. However, one last cloudburst of dissonance swerved us from this garden path towards the piece’s well received conclusion. It was wonderful to see the great man, dapper and energetic, take a bow and thank the orchestra for a thoroughly engaging performance.

American pianist Peter Serkin last appeared in this venue with Glasgow-born Oliver Knussen and the SCO in 2012, playing Hindemith’s Kammermusik no. 2 for piano and orchestra. The featured composer this time was Bartók – his 1945 Piano Concerto no. 3. Written at his life’s end, the work’s outer movements convey nothing of Bartók’s ill health and personal and financial struggles since finding refuge from European conflict in America. Both movements are energised by the short-long rhythm, even more common in Hungarian folk music and speech rhythms than Scottish. Although these movements were not quite as changeable as Maxwell Davies’, there were significant shifts in mood which were affectively enhanced with intelligent, sensitive observation of dynamics. I sensed commonality of approach between Serkin and Knussen: the complete absence of ostentation seemed the heart of this, each employing only the technique and expenditure of energy necessary to communicate the spirit of the music.

The tender, central Andante religioso, beautifully played by Serkin and the SCO, contains much more space for reflection. The solo, chorale-like piano lines, are punctuated by searching passages of string writing; balance and quality of sound were really impressive here. As the intensity of each successive line increased I was reminded, much to my surprise, of the pianism and harmony of another west-bound émigré: Rachmaninov. When the chorale material returns, following a more animated central section, piano and orchestra combine and these moments were, for me, the emotional highlight of a performance which occasioned a very warm audience response.

Stravinsky’s migration from Europe to America occurred midway between the composition of his 1938–40 Symphony in C. Like Bartók, Stravinsky experienced personal and family illness at the time of composition. However, one would never discern this in the music – certainly not in the opening Moderato alla breve and definitely not in this performance, which was brimming with life. Explosive horn section sforzandi contributed greatly to this, as did the excellent wind section and some fine trombone work. Stravinsky, well aware that neo-classical style, like the original, thrives on conflict and contrast, also includes gentler material which was sensitively played here.

Oboist Robin Williams featured very expressively in the Larghetto concertante, for which he was later warmly acknowledged. This movement also contains a very unusual and impressive trumpet moment where the orchestra’s momentum is assured by a repeated pulsing note, here tirelessly supplied by SCO Principal Trumpet Peter Franks.

The horns – who, under the leadership of Stephen Stirling, were having a great concert – featured again in the quirky Allegretto, alongside swaggering trombones and an outstanding wind section. The concluding movement was just as life-affirming as the opening one. The closing wind and brass chords were haunting in that puzzling way which only Stravinsky can pull off – given an orchestra of this calibre, under impressive direction such as Knussen’s.

****1