Aberdeen Sinfonietta Spring Concert 14th May 2023 - Review



Sunday 14th May 2023

Holly Mathieson, Conductor

Dionysis Grammenos, Clarinet Soloist

Bryan Dargie, Leader


Mikhail Verbytskyi, The National Anthem of Ukraine arr. John Hearne

Engelbert Humperdinck (1854 – 1921), Overture to Hansel and Gretel

Bedřich Smetana (1824 – 1884), Šárka (from Má vlast)

Carl Maria von Weber (1786 – 1826), Clarinet Concerto No 2 in E flat Major op 74

Robert Schumann (1810 – 1856), Symphony No 4 in d minor op 120


Aberdeen Sinfonietta are currently ‘on a roll’ with a recent fine performance in support of Aberdeen Bach Choir and next week on Sunday 21st May, they will play along with the Stonehaven Chorus, in a complete performance of Mendelssohn’s Elijah. This Sunday they were in Aberdeen’s Music Hall to present their own Spring Concert with a new guest conductor Holly Mathieson, born in New Zealand and now Director of Symphony Nova Scotia in Canada.

I have been reviewing concerts for many years now and for a long time there were very few live performances of music by Carl Maria von Weber whose music I have always enjoyed on record or CD. I was delighted therefore to see that Sinfonietta were going to be performing Weber’s Clarinet Concerto No 2 with a special guest soloist, Dionysis Grammenos from Greece, renowned throughout Europe as a conductor in addition to being a virtuoso clarinettist. We were soon to find out how true that was.

It has become almost a tradition for Sinfonietta to open their concert with John Hearne’s orchestral arrangement of the National Anthem of Ukraine. I and a couple of friends stood up for this performance, but nobody else did. I will leave it at that.

The programme proper opened with Humperdinck’s Overture to Hansel and Gretel, his Märchenoper (Fairy-tale Opera). If this performance was a sign of what we were to expect in the rest of the concert, then we were in for something absolutely awesome because the Overture was exceptional. Sinfonietta had brought a large orchestra to the stage for this work including five French horns and four double basses. The horns sang out the Evening Prayer to open the Overture. They were magnificent.

Great playing after that from Geoffrey Bridge on oboe. The strings, in particular the first violins, played with a smooth melodic sweep. One does not often mention the triangle player but he was splendid in this piece and in the following one by Smetana In both works the triangle really stands out in the score. As well as the romantic singing melodies, there is merry music in the Overture too. Holly Mathieson gave encouragement to both types of music and her orchestra responded perfectly.

Šárka from Má vlast by Smetana is not so well known as Humperdinck’s music but it too has attractive melodic content. It began with detailed and incisive playing, then smoothed out melodically. There were delightful little touches of percussion from cymbals and triangle. Fine clarinet solos, two of them actually, warm playing by the five horns and then the rest of the brass. Once again, smooth playing from all the strings and a gentle timpani roll. Near the conclusion there was full orchestra with galloping rhythms and great playing from trombones and tuba.

So far, everything was excellent, but even that was about to be eclipsed in pure brilliance by the performance from both orchestra and soloist in Weber’s Clarinet Concerto. The orchestra was slimmed down considerably for this performance. Their opening music was clean, delicate and elegant, wonderfully well focused. Then Wow! Clarinet soloist Dionysis Grammenos entered in the first movement Allegro. εξαιρετικός (outstanding). Did I get the Greek letters right? (Thanks to Richard Shirreffs for the Greek. He was sitting just along from me at the concert.)

There were smoothly executed leaps, then detailed runs with every note clear and cleanly expressed like gleaming strings of pearls shot out of the instrument. The second movement opened with splendid pizzicato cellos. The clarinet sang out slow, clear and gentle, beautifully well controlled and phrased, covering nearly the full range of the instrument. The final movement, Alla Polacca was jaunty, sometimes dazzlingly fast, full of joy and good humour written into the score by Weber and delivered at full value by the soloist to whom the orchestra, encouraged by Holly Mathieson, responded with elegance and enthusiasm. Performances just don’t get better than this.

However the final piece in the programme was excellent too. It was Schumann’s Symphony No 4 in d minor op 120. The full orchestra were back on stage for this work including the five horns. In the opening movement, detailed changes in tempo and indeed intensity of playing, sometimes small or else much larger were well handled by the conductor with full response from the orchestra. I loved the way she controlled the passing of the theme from section to section of the orchestra. In the second movement Romanze, there was that splendid oboe again! and the string melody topped off by Bryan Dargie’s beautifully delicate ornamental violin solos. How delicious was that?

Scherzo and Trio sections were splendidly well contrasted, then the orchestra drove steadfastly onward to a lively conclusion. Yes, it had been a marvellous concert full of melody from beginning to end. Sinfonietta deserve bigger audiences. The balcony was well filled but too many empty seats downstairs. “Oh! We don’t go to hear amateur orchestras!” This is NO amateur orchestra. Weber’s Clarinet Concerto could perhaps be equalled by the official professionals. But bettered? I don’t think so.

This was a marvellous programme. If you like beautiful music well played, then you will surely like this. So come on folks, lets fill the Music Hall. Anyway I’m sure our two guest performers will have been pleased with the rousing applause they received. It at least did fill the Music Hall. Even the young attendants on duty in the Hall told me how much they had enjoyed the whole performance.