Review by Alan Cooper

Garry Walker appears fairly regularly with Aberdeen Sinfonietta as guest conductor. He is exceptionally talented and the orchestra seem to really like him. They certainly play enthusiastically for him and Saturday’s performance in High Church, Hilton was no exception. It was a fantastic concert.

The first two pieces were new to me but they proved alluring, enthralling even. The first was Dances from The Oprichnik, an early opera by Tchaikovsky. Why have I never heard these two dances programmed as an overture ever before? Orchestral planners are falling down on their job because this piece was absolutely marvellous. In these dances, Tchaikovsky brings all sections of the orchestra dazzlingly into play. The first dance was joyful and so full of life and orchestral colour. Lovely smooth warm strings bathed us in an attractive tune. The woodwind, especially the flutes really shone forth. In the second dance, pizzicato strings led into the most exciting build up from the rest of the orchestra with spicy touches from the percussion including triangle and tambourine – small touches perhaps, but they lit up the performance.

The second piece was by a talented young local composer, Joe Stollery. Entitled Grampian Picture, it was another splendid overture. In many ways it mirrored the spirit of the two Tchaikovsky dances and was therefore a great programming choice. A lively chomping rhythmic pattern on strings promised great things to come and sure enough that paid off in particularly attractive woodwind playing. Brass, clarinet and oboe selling us their melody had a really tasteful touch of Scottish flavour – not too much. That could have seemed a bit crass. There was just enough to establish the landscape the music was meant to depict. It did so most strikingly. Shimmering strings, timpani and glockenspiel were just some of the effects that challenged Tchaikovsky’s colourful orchestral writing in this piece by Joe Stollery composed in 2014, almost certainly before he had come across the Tchaikovsky Dances, so it was very much all his own work.

The orchestral opening of Mozart’s Violin Concerto No 5 in A K219 had an optimistic upward thrusting theme introducing jaunty elegant playing from the strings. Our soloist today was the Russian born violin virtuosa Anna-Liisa Bezrodny. She comes from a distinguished family of musicians in Moscow. Her solo entry instantly established the smooth sweetness of her tone. I loved her lively, almost balletic response to the brightness of Mozart’s faster music as the first movement progressed. Her response to variations in dynamics was a masterclass in delicate playing. Her extensive first movement cadenza was colourful and marvellously exciting.

The slow second movement opened with elegant playing from the orchestra. The violin part reminded me of some of Mozart’s finest operatic writing. Anna-Liisa brought out the slightly bitter-sweet quality you also find in the slow movement of the clarinet concerto. If you know the painting Pierrot by Watteau, that, I think is the feeling you get from this music. There was a second attractive cadenza at the end of this movement.

The finale however is entirely good humoured. The connection between Anna-Liisa and Garry Walker and therefore with the orchestra was impressive. The ‘Turkish’ march could equally well have been Russian, bringing this concerto closer to the rest of the programme. It was a totally captivating performance from both soloist and orchestra. It gave us all lots to think about. There is an astonishing moment at the end of the concerto when it is almost as if Mozart blows us a cheerful little kiss. With composers like Mozart you find something new and special in every performance. This was certainly true today.

The final piece in the concert was the Symphony No 2 in c minor Op 17 by Tchaikovsky known as the ‘Little Russian’. Until I read the programme note, I did not know that this was a reference to Ukraine whose folk melodies Tchaikovsky uses in three of the four movement in the Symphony.

The opening movement begins with an abrupt ‘crunch’ from the orchestra. Its fulsome sound played a major part later in the movement but it was horn player Robert Martin and bassoonist Lesley Wilson who dominated the opening of the symphony.

In the second movement the timpani were played so sensitively by Isabel John. The march was slow but above all, superbly light footed. A base of strings was crowned by multicolours of first rate woodwind playing. Here was bright sunny music with even more delicate light timpani at the end.

The third movement, Scherzo, had fine flute playing and it was here that the string playing really started to catch fire. Fast playing was kept firmly on the road by the precision of the string sections.

The final movement, dare I say the best part of the symphony by quite a long way, also had the most exciting playing from the entire orchestra. It opened with, as the programme suggested, something like Mussorgsky’s ‘The Great Gate of Kiev’. Then helter skelter scurrying strings really took flight. It was a jolly, fiery movement jam packed with generous thematic variety. Near the end, the brass and percussion sections got going at full power in a movement that reached out towards the quality and power of Tchaikovsky’s later symphonies.

Tomorrow Aberdeen Sinfonietta go down to play in Dundee’s Caird Hall. That should reveal to the Dundonians that not all the finest Scottish orchestras come from Glasgow or Edinburgh. Sinfonietta from Aberdeen these days are up there with the very best – don’t you think?