Philadelphia’s British Isles Festival ran the second of its three programmes tonight, with all works inspired by the endless imagination of the Celtic North: namely Scotland. From a cultural point of view, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert’s ‘discovery’ of the remote outposts of the kingdom was crucially important; two of the three works – Bruch’s Scottish Fantasy and Mendelssohn’s Scottish Symphony – owe their existence to the Victorian cult; the latter is indeed dedicated to the Queen herself.

Yannick Nézét-Séguin © Marco Borggreve
Yannick Nézét-Séguin
© Marco Borggreve

Peter Maxwell Davies’ 1985 tone poem An Orkney Wedding, with Sunrise was written with all the passion of an island convert. He visited there in the early 1970s and subsequently made it his home. This work recalls the wedding of a farmer-fisherman friend in 1979: we are to imagine nothing too sophisticated, but the gregarious, intimate and tipsy gathering that it was. With folksy charm, the Philadelphia Orchestra seized upon its rhythms and endearing melodies, swaying easily into the drunk and disorderly part of the revels, with wood-block hiccups. The violin solo, followed by other instruments, sounded realistically inebriated and pleasantly disjointed. As dawn crept upon the revelers, a piece of theatre ensued, as the lights brightened over the stage and auditorium, and a splendidly-attired bagpiper, a veritable giant of a man, appeared dramatically at the back of the theatre, and with that unmistakably reedy sound cutting through the fog of hangover, made his way to the stage. In Yannick Nézet-Séguin’s enthusiastic hands, this seemed less gimmicky and more of a joyous, lovely surprise, breaking in at the end of a long boozy party.

It is wholly understandable, if a little unfair, that we don’t feel the same anticipated excitement for a member of the orchestra turned soloist as we would for a visiting celebrity. Rightly or wrongly, we expect less virtuosic firepower, less theatrical flair. But there is something particularly apt about an orchestra member being given this rare prominence, not least because it reminds us that each individual in the ensemble is a soloist in their own right. And, celebrity fanfare or not, there must be a genuine communion between such a soloist and his/her colleagues, ‘the best colleagues and the best boss’ one could ever hope for, as Juliette Kang, the assistant concert master, confessed to the audience after her fine performance of Max Bruch’s Scottish Fantasy, Op.46. There was, in truth, little lacking. From the first, she caught the wistful, lonesome beauty of the piece, and with long smooth bow strokes, and great purity of intonation and tone, she entered into Bruch’s mystical, mythical fantasy-land. The orchestra had unfortunately started whilst the audience was still in coughing and spluttering mode; by her entrance, calm was restored. In the Allegro, the mood was spirited and playful; her connectedness with Nézet-Séguin and her colleagues was evident. Sometimes, it is true, there could have been more heft of tone; those double stops call for deep ploughing, and she didn’t quite achieve that as successfully as she rendered the work’s delicate clarities. Still, this was a very successful performance, and all the more pleasing coming from the ranks of this great orchestra.

As an impressionable and precociously gifted 20 year old, Mendelssohn visited Scotland, and upon seeing the evocative ruins of Holyrood Palace and its encroaching ivies, stumbled, as it were, on the beginning of his Scottish Symphony.  His Symphony No 3 in A minor, Op. 56 appeared in 1842, over a decade later. Tonight’s performance was flowing, lyrical and passionate, a fine Scottish romance. The strings were particularly triumphant. They sang plaintively as one voice at the start of the Andante; later in the same movement, with driving rhythmic intensity, calling forth the storm forces of the whole orchestra. In the Adagio, the cellos enveloped the audience with a warm, surround sound. Nézet-Séguin has an immaculate attention to what each desk is doing, or ought to be doing; and there were passages which electrified for the bringing-together of rhythms, sounds and volumes. We were drenched in all sorts of dreams about Scotland tonight –  dreams of its other-worldliness and remoteness but also images of its earthy pleasures of dance and drink.

****1