This evening celebrated the 80th birthday of Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, one of the UK's foremost composers, who has made a significant contribution to music, with his prolific and wide-ranging output. When he himself joined us for the night's celebration, one could hardly believe it was his 80th. Only in the slightest of stoops and a certain brittleness of voice could one detect any sign of age; his gait as he came on stage was energetic and full of verve. Comfortably seated in armchairs on the right corner of the stage, he and the BBC's Tom Service briefly spoke about each of the works performed that night, about their background, their music and the images it evokes, and his comments were sharp and witty, with the occasional wink at the events fate has had in store for him.

Peter Maxwell Davies, the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and Ben Gernon © Chris Christodoulou
Peter Maxwell Davies, the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and Ben Gernon
© Chris Christodoulou

The first piece to be played was his concert overture Ebb of Winter, which on this occasion also received its London première. Its dominant image is of a pale winter sun that is seen through a wash of sea-spray mirrors – the weather conditions during its composition – when it appeared that spring had come early, yet much more bitter weather was to return. The music's underlying sense of imminent danger, appearing for instance in the form of very low woodwinds, may however also reflect the composer's situation at the time, and he admitted in conversation that "the music knew something that I didn't know" - namely that he was to find himself seriously ill and in hospital shortly after completing the piece. It moves on from the horn's opening theme into a sequence of vivid solos for paired woodwind and trumpets, for which the strings lay a flageolet carpet. Despite the overall darkness of the piece, the first sun beams break through clouds and mist eventually as a series of great build-ups is followed by the dazzling final chord.

Dimitri Ashkenazy © Chris Christodoulou
Dimitri Ashkenazy
© Chris Christodoulou
For the Strathclyde Concerto no. 4, the Scottish Chamber Orchestra - recipients of the concerto - under the baton of Ben Gernon, was joined on stage by clarinettist Dimitri Ashkenazy. Seated, to my surprise, he emerged with sombre chords from the lower strings' introspective introduction, only to contrast them with the opening of the second movement, whose lively lines bursting with energy are strongly reminiscent of the ingenious, joyful music of Mozart. With five sections that are played without break, the work does indeed give the impression of being "in search of something" as the composer - who could not help conducting along in tiny hand gestures – described it.

Avoiding the conventional musical confrontation between orchestra and soloist, Davies created the Strathclyde pieces towards a co-operative, collaborative relationship, outlining a dialogue between the clarinet's capricious course and the rhythmical music of the supporting instruments. As with many others of Davies' works, this is also strongly influenced by the traditional music of his Scottish home. The piobaireachd (or pibroch, an ancient pipe tune) on which it is based is most prominently stated by the soloist in the concerto's inward coda, while the strings rise towards a final cadence and radiant chord of F sharp major in conclusion of an earlier striving. Dimitri Ashkenazy started out with a very sharp, almost piercing tone that initially I found too cold, too poignant, but that worked very well for the quick passages and particularly in the upper tonal range. Only in the second half of the concerto did he visit the middle and lower range of his instrument and a corresponding softer, more mellow tone. It was a gorgeous rendition of this hugely difficult piece, with great emotion and without any obvious effort even in the face of the very high number of very high notes that never sounded pushed.

In line with the occasion, the evening closed with "the party piece of all party pieces", as Tom Service described it - An Orkney Wedding, with Sunrise. Written for the centenary celebrations of the Boston Pops Orchestra, it vividly brings to life, in a series of episodes, what its composer calls a "picture-postcard recording of a wedding on Hoy". Out of a blast of bad weather, the guests arrive accompanied by first woodwind solos. Then the wedding band tunes up raucously for the wedding dance whose initial traditional Scottish style with the delightful strathspey rhythm soon takes on a somewhat American swing pointing towards the work's first performers. As the celebrations progress, the band becomes increasingly inebriated and rallies into boozy merriment with cheering and, on this occasion, some excited double bass-spinning. Real drinks were served on stage, Ben Gernon toasted the audience to a flute jig with brass accompaniment, which was just a tiny bit too dominant, and was contrasted with a lively reel whose pulse the musicians found it difficult to sustain, and the solo fiddler, orchestra leader Charlotte Scott, was noticeably tipsy in her strathspey.

Piper Robert Jordan and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra © Chris Christodoulou
Piper Robert Jordan and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra
© Chris Christodoulou
Exhausted by the festivities, the wedding guests return home at the break of dawn to a calm, serene music that built up once more in a great crescendo, in which bagpiper Robert Jordan solemnly marched on stage. With only the tiniest bit of difference in tempo to the orchestra, the splendour of the rising sun is portrayed in the majestic melody of the pipes that ends the piece in a blaze of light. This music was fun, the playing of the musicians superb, and it left the audience in an excited and bedazzled celebratory mood that demanded the musicians back on stage. Afterwards, their very own version of "Happy Birthday", arranged by a member of the orchestra in the jolly mood of the previous piece, sent us off from the "Royal Albert Hall Ceilidh" and into the night in high spirits.