The undoubted highlight of Sunday's first class Sinfonietta concert was Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto in D Major Op 35 with the amazing Gina McCormack as soloist. Various stories surround the birth of this astonishing work. One legend goes that a player to whom Tchaikovsky offered the work (it could have been Leopold Auer) originally rejected it as "unplayable". Well, Gina McCormack played it - and brilliantly too! The central movement is not quite as challenging though it has its own particular demands. Perhaps not even the finale asks too much throughout, although it too is challenging, but as for the opening movement, it must be one of the most technically terrifying pieces of violin music ever written. The main melody is ravishingly attractive. Gina McCormack's silky smooth playing made it sing out so beautifully but along with that tune comes an absolute plethora of high speed runs and leaps, sometimes reaching the most dangerous uppermost limits of the instrument's range. I will not say that Gina McCormack made it seem easy, quite obviously it is not, but she managed to fit in every one of the torrents of notes on time. It is not just the fingerboard work that is demanding, she had to co-ordinate that with precision bowing of many differing strengths - and that she did to near perfection. Her playing of the middle Canzonetta was delicious and she was supported by a beautifully restrained and well controlled woodwind choir. The finale was joyfully played by both soloist and orchestra responding delightfully to one another and the conclusion of the work was as testing and exciting as anything in the opening movement.
To open the concert, Sinfonietta had chosen a rousing work, full of good humour and musical jokes. This was Malcolm Arnold's Four Scottish Dances. I loved the whoops from the horns, possibly representing the "hoochs" that Scottish Dancers come out with in response to the excitement of the dance. The muscularity of the dance rhythms came forth perfectly in this performance, you could just feel it, and I know of no other composer who would have dared conclude his movement with the jocular "Shave and a Haircut - Two bits! The second dance using the tune, "I'll aye call in by yon toun" had a splendid drunken bassoon solo played by Lesley Wilson - I refer to the music of course and definitely not the player. Flute (Margaret Preston), oboe (Geoffrey Bridge) and harp (Sharron Griffiths) were the stars of the lovely third movement - and then it was back to the thrill of the dance with the stirring finale.
Malcolm Arnold is not a Scotsman, he was born in Northampton but I think he captures a part of the spirit of Scotland with his humorous Dances. Gustav Holst was very much English and so his Brook Green Suite balanced the opening work nicely, leading us into the second half of the concert. The strings of Sinfonietta gave us a delicate and beautifully transparent account of this attractive work ending with a jauntily played finale.
Raymond Dodd spent much of his musical life in Aberdeen. He was for many years a lecturer in music at Aberdeen University eventually becoming Head of Department. A superb cellist, many concert goers will remember his tremendous continuo playing in many concerts and along with Bryan Dargie and the late Donald Hawksworth he was a member of the long lived Aberdeen Trio. His composition Gratiae for string orchestra had many passages of deliciously warm harmonies but there were also a number of delightful changes of texture and rhythm that made for compelling listening. Gratiae followed on particularly well after Holst's Brook Green Suite.
The final work in Sunday's concert provided a powerful contrast to the rest of the programme with Borodin's Symphony No 2 in b minor. The two outer movements have something of the spirit of a celebratory Russian Overture about them, full of rich orchestral colour and sparkle. Much of the work gives nearly every member of the orchestra the opportunity to play out at full tilt. In the finale even the whole percussion section were on their feet and ready to play. It looked and sounded exciting. The brass section, especially horns and trombones were to the fore in the outer movements. The most interesting movement was the Andante with exceptionally fine playing from harp (Sharron Griffiths), horn (Robert Martin) and clarinet (Ailsa Mathieson). This was an unusual and rarely heard work, so we have to thank Aberdeen Sinfonietta for the opportunity of hearing it in thrilling live performance.