Classical review: Max at 80, Glasgow

The Hebrides Ensemble played pieces written specifically for them by the composer and other works, showcasing the range of Maxwell Davies's gift
The Hebrides Ensemble played pieces written specifically for them by the composer and other works, showcasing the range of Maxwell Davies's gift
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Celebrations for Sir Peter Maxwell Davies’s 80th birthday appear to have gone on all year. The big day was last Monday, so yesterday’s tribute organised by Glasgow Unesco City of Music was a timely opportunity for some Scottish musicians, including the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, to mark the milestone.

Max at 80 - City Halls, Glasgow

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Their sequence of three concerts began with the Hebrides Ensemble, and a programme focusing on chamber music, a genre through which the composer has continually expressed some of his most intimate, innermost thoughts and expression.

The range of that expression is extraordinary. On the one hand, we heard the plaintive, warm simplicity of the Lullaby for violin and cello, written for a friend’s wife, in which the violin spins a golden lyricism over the drip-drip pizzicato of the cello. Then the sorrowful reflection implicit in the String Trio, its poignant ending dissolving into a mournful Scots air, played with filigree detail by Leslie Hatfield (violin), Scott Dickinson (viola) and William Conway (cello).

The air was cleared by the impromptu appearance of composer Sally Beamish, announcing she had a birthday tribute – a short, iridescent piano duo Fanfare and Fancies on a popular theme, which turned out to be Max’s own Farewell to Stromness – which she performed with pianist Michael Bawtree.

It set the scene for Max’s Oboe Quartet, a work written last year for the Hebrides, in which the soulful longing of the oboe, played here by Lucas Macías Navarro, weaves a silken emotional thread through the mercurial delicacy of the string textures. In the informal darkness of the old Fruitmarket, it was sublime.

In the natural daylight of the Recital Room, Sean Shibe put a bright solo slant on the proceedings, juxtaposing the original Farewell to Stromness – a beautifully nuanced, if slightly nervous performance by the young Scots guitarist – with the austere atmospherics of Hill Runes, a cool, haunting projection of the harsh Orkney landscape on an instrument more traditionally suited to warmth and exoticism.

Shibe’s imaginative performance captured both the music’s stillness and the rumbling unpredictability.

Which he did again in another birthday surprise, Alasdair Nicolson’s Magnus, based on the hymn tune of that name, but equally evoking reflections of Orkney through its elemental gestures and unnerving restlessness.

Finally, the orchestral concert, but with a further surprise that very nearly wasn’t, as a bit of premature mistiming nearly gave the game away.

This was a performance by singers and handbell ringers from Greenmill Primary School in Cumnock, and students from the RCS, of James MacMillan’s The Rising Moon, a setting of Burns that glowed with ringing luminosity.

The interesting young conductor Ben Gernon directed the orchestral works, each an altered perspective on the Orkney landscape and culture, from the sharp crystalline colours of Last Door of Light (its Scottish premiere), and the volatile theatre of Ebb of Winter, to the ever-popular – in this case slightly taut and cautious – An Orkney Wedding with Sunrise, featuring bagpiper Findlay Macdonald as the icing on the birthday cake.

Seen on 14.09.14