Review by Alan Cooper

Aberdeen Sinfonietta’s Autumn Concert 2017 with John Frederick Hudson as guest conductor began and ended with splendid well-known works by Mendelssohn. It was overall a generous programme that included two very attractive short works for strings along with a delightful Sinfonia Concertante for a quartet of wind soloists and orchestra by Mozart. The solo quartet by Mozart shone the spotlight on four of the most talented regular members of the orchestra – a real chance for them to shine, which of course they did, and then some!

The performance opened with one of Mendelssohn’s best known and most popular works, the Hebrides Overture. The rather dry acoustic of Midstocket Church emphasised the different sections of the orchestra making them stand out in high relief. It was a fine clean and clear performance starting with the cello section making Mendelssohn’s opening melody suggesting the rise and fall of the waves strong and expressive. It was not long before the violins, the woodwind choir and the horns and trumpets demonstrated their prowess. John Frederick Hudson added impact to the performance with his careful adjustments in tempo. Ailsa Matheson’s clarinet playing stood out with the famous melody near the end. The different string sections added their impact to the surges of the music and the horns were impressive too.

The first of the two short string pieces was The White Swan’s Lullaby by John Hearne who I am pleased to say was in the audience to enjoy the performance of his music. It was short but very sweet with a young soprano, Lisa Johnston singing the Gaelic words of the piece. Her voice soared on the breast of the string playing – very attractive indeed. The second of the two short string pieces was an arrangement for string orchestra by Rosemary Furniss (violinist, conductor and founder pupil of the Yehudi Menuhin School) of Farewell to Stromness one of two popular piano solos along with Yesnaby Ground by Sir Peter Maxwell Davies. As the programme note informed us this string arrangement was made specially for the Wedding of the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall in April 2005. It is short and relatively simple but very attractive and effective. It was well played and went down particularly well with Saturday’s audience.

The Sinfonia Concertante in E flat by Mozart K 364 opens with a quite extensive orchestral exposition before the solo quartet comes in. The orchestra for this piece consists mainly of strings but oboes and horns are also used to fill out the texture. In the first movement the quartet emerges at first like a little wind band but gradually the individual voices made their mark. In the second movement the four soloists were more exposed giving Mozart’s smooth melodic writing their full attention. In the finale the music turned jaunty and happy and all four of the soloists had their chance to shine. Even the bassoon whose darker tones tended to confine it to the background accompaniments had her moment in the spotlight which Lesley Wilson seized with relish. The oboe played by Fiona Gordon was lithe and clear and there were moments of real sizzling excitement with the fast soaring ascents of the horn lines played with gusto by Robert Martin. For me though it was the splendidly ornate clarinet part played by Ailsa Matheson that stood out with greatest clarity. I don’t wish to play down the fine work of the other soloists but it is simply a function of the clarinet that its colours shone most brightly.

The concluding work in the concert was the most magnificent. It was Mendelssohn’s marvellous ‘Scottish’ Symphony, No. 3 in a minor Op. 56. It opened with a series of portentous chords on woodwinds and violas, sounding almost as if played on an organ. Cellos and basses came in and the pace picked up. There was plenty of melodic sweep in this performance and the request from the composer for ‘agitato’ even if he only asks for that ‘un poco’ was fully complied with. The Scottish accent of the melodies was certainly there and this first movement was splendidly dramatic.

The second movement, a rather jolly scherzo had its merry melody on winds against clearly played scurrying strings.

The third movement was all melody with first violins and winds holding forth deliciously against pizzicatos from the rest of the strings. There was a lovely moment later on when the melody comes back on the cellos with the oboe singing its heart out above.

In his excellent programme note Roger B. Williams mentions references to suggestions that the final movement is ‘a wild highland fling’. In John Frederick Hudson’s interpretation though I thought rather of a mad chase on horseback across a wild Scottish landscape with horns and winds crying out in hot pursuit. This was an absolutely splendid movement with its sudden astonishing change of key into the major -quite stunning and as Roger wrote in his note, ‘the work ends in a spectacular blaze of glory’ with all four horn players ‘gein’ it laldy’ as they say in Scotland. It was marvellous. Well done John Frederick Hudson and of course Sinfonietta.