ABERDEEN SINFONIETTA Spring Concert May 2019


PHILIP HIGHAM: Cello Soloist


Sunday 12th May, 2019

Sunday’s concert in Aberdeen’s Music Hall was a most joyful event for Aberdeen Sinfonietta. It marked their return to what is in effect their home venue. It had been closed for several years during refurbishment. This was indeed a ‘Gala Concert’ as promised, featuring a particularly festive programme. It opened with the ‘Overture to Die Fledermaus’, the operetta by Johann Strauss II and concluded with George Frideric Handel’s ‘Music for the Royal Fireworks’, scored originally for wind instruments, although Handel himself had wanted to include strings as in the version we heard on Sunday.

Both works have a powerful celebratory atmosphere about them and there can be no doubt that on Sunday, Aberdeen Sinfonietta rose triumphally to the occasion. In the Overture to Die Fledermaus, the string playing was superbly clean and precise. Every section of the strings shone through with a special clarity. The oboe solos played by Geoffrey Bridge were every bit as magical as I had expected them to be. I loved Garry Walker’s changes of tempo chosen perfectly to match the rhythms of the various songs that are heard later in the operetta. Above all, the entire Overture had the special allure you expect from such a marvellous curtain raiser.

In the Music for the Royal Fireworks, the wind sections were dazzlingly brilliant. There were the horns in full cry at the opening along with the rest of the brass. The high trumpets topped off some of the music deliciously. You don’t get better than that! The woodwind players in ‘La Paix’ were absolutely delightful, flutes and oboes with a kind of gurgling laughter from the bassoons too. In ‘La Réjouissance’ and at the conclusion, the four percussionists brought to life the very spirit of fireworks. Apparently at the first performance, the fireworks set the stage alight. Just as well there were none in the Music Hall – after all it has just been reopened.

If the outer parts of the programme were delicious, the centres they contained were even more delectable. To begin with there was a fantastic performance of Haydn’s ‘Cello Concerto No. 1 in C major’ with Philip Higham as soloist whom many will have recognised as Principal Cellist of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. As a soloist, I thought he was second to none. He played the opening movement ‘Moderato’ with a smooth delicacy full of so much refined detailing. In the ‘Adagio’, his cello had lovely long-held notes above the orchestra and Higham made his instrument sing so beautifully. In contrast, the finale was full of lively good fun. Higham’s fingers were positively scampering over the fingerboard and every one of his torrents of notes came through with crystal clarity. The orchestra was mostly strings with a pair each of horns and oboes in the outer movements. The strings rose to the challenge posed by Philip Higham’s performance. Their playing was equally clean and clear.

After the interval, Philip Higham was back with a totally different work, ‘Silent Woods’ for cello and orchestra by Dvořák. The cello playing was rich and luscious, and as is often the case with the music of Dvořák, the woodwind writing was particularly attractive. There was the flute played by Margaret Preston but the rest of the woodwind too. It was a marvellously atmospheric work living up to its title, but not well known. Thank you Sinfonietta for letting us hear such a splendid performance of it.

The last time I heard music from ‘Three Bavarian Dances’ by Elgar was at a concert in Cults East Church some fifty six years ago when the late Iain Watson who was organist there, staged a performance of all six parts in the version for choir and orchestra ‘From the Bavarian Highlands’. Sunday’s performance brought back fond memories. I was eighteen years old then, now I have just turned seventy-four. I particularly enjoyed the third piece on Sunday. It was a perfect example of Englishness in music from the pen of Elgar. I wonder if any members of Sunday’s orchestra played in that earlier performance. Probably not. I remember Harry Anely and Joe Varley. The orchestra was led by Neil Johnston, I think. Was today’s leader Bryan Dargie playing in that performance? I enjoyed it back then but if most of them could have heard today’s performance they would have been absolutely flabbergasted. They would probably not have believed the fabulous professional standard that Sinfonietta has achieved. Philip Higham from the Scottish Chamber Orchestra must surely have felt perfectly at home playing with Aberdeen’s wonderful orchestra. What a delightfully happy evening of music!