Gig review: St Magnus Festival, Orkney

The Trondheim Soloists
The Trondheim Soloists
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It had become traditional for him to offer a weather forecast, the St Magnus Festival’s artistic director Alasdair Nicolson explained at his opening address on Friday.

St Magnus Festival, Orkney Opening Weekend

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This being Orkney, though, the climate was going to be pretty unpredictable – we should prepare ourselves for anything. The same could easily be said of the eclectic programme he’d put together – from sumptuous Biblical paintings by Norwegian artist Håkon Gullvåg hanging amid the red brick of St Magnus Cathedral, to John Sessions performing as Harry Lauder, to knitting sessions with Scandinavian experts Arne Nerjordet and Carlos Zachrison.

Just a couple of days in, it’s already a rich mix, provocative and entertaining in equal measure. And in honour of the 200th anniversary of the Norwegian constitution – as well as celebrating centuries-old Orcadian links with its northerly neighbour – that country’s arts have had enjoyably prominent billing.

Friday night’s opening concert was given over to the crack string players of the Trondheim Soloists, whose energetic, clean-cut playing proved an ideal match for the scurrying Baroque figurations of Handel and little-known Trondheim composer Johan Daniel Berlin, for which they were joined by the exceptionally expressive British oboist Nicholas Daniel. The Trondheim band were maybe a little too vigorous for the rich lyricism of Tchaikovsky’s Souvenir de Florence, although there was no doubting their sincere, no-nonsense playing. But festival director Nicolson couldn’t have hoped for a more arresting world-premiere performance of his short Magnus, which proved the concert’s highlight. Written as an 80th birthday gift to festival founder Peter Maxwell Davies – who was present to accept the tribute – it was music pared down to its essentials, just a few slow-moving fragments of ancient melody, grumbling basslines and stratospheric glissandos like seabird cries, all delivered with vivid precision by the Trondheim players. It made you hold your breath for fear of missing any of the piece’s enigmatic, half-heard sounds – which blossomed magically in St Magnus Cathedral’s remarkable acoustic.

Opening night continued in the cathedral with a late-evening recital from the BBC Singers, who were astonishingly focused and persuasive in two pieces by Maxwell Davies – his elegant Dum complerentur, its swelling chords beautifully balanced by the 26-strong choir, and his ambitious Westerlings, settings of verse by Orcadian poet George Mackay Brown. Westerlings was an uncompromising offering for almost 11pm, but the singers carried off its evocative sea pictures and serene closing prayer with a sure sense of style and drama.

The Italian Chapel on the neighbouring island of Lamb Holm was the setting for an exquisite and rather humbling event on Saturday evening. Converted into a beautifully decorated Catholic place of worship from two Nissen huts by Italian prisoners of war during the Second World War, it served as an intimate venue for songs and lute music from the time of Caravaggio by Italian threesome Laus Concentus. The sublime ornateness of the music, by the likes of Monteverdi, Caccini and Lassus, combined with the trio’s gloriously natural, spontaneous performances and the hard-won sumptuousness of the chapel surroundings in a concert whose celebration of creativity, sometimes against the odds, felt really rather moving.

Seen on 20/21.06.14