I was delighted that Aberdeen Sinfonietta had invited two of our most accomplished "local" musicians to take part in their latest Summer Concert. I put the word "local" in inverted commas since Dr Roger Williams is originally from Swansea - but surely his multiple contributions to almost every aspect of musical life throughout the North East over many years entitles him to an honorary citizenship? Roger's association with Aberdeen Sinfonietta both as keyboardist and conductor goes back to the very foundation of the orchestra so it was splendid to welcome him back again as conductor of Sunday's concert.
Joseph Long is very much an Aberdonian but his reputation as a concert pianist is celebrated not just throughout Scotland but in many other countries as well, so the two principal guest performers in today's concert are up there with the very best. Also very much at the top of their form were Aberdeen Sinfonietta. Real quality was evident from the very first notes and continued throughout their performance of the opening work in the programme, Symphony No. 2 in D Major by Brahms, op. 73. The programme note draws our attention to the fact that although this Symphony has been described as a particularly "sunny" work, it does have its darker undercurrents too although when Brahms said to one of his friends that "the score must appear with a black border" he was surely "having a laugh"? At any rate it was the smiling sunlit side of this music that came through triumphantly in Sunday's performance. Above lower strings soared the horns, cleanly and clearly and then the woodwinds, topped splendidly by the flutes, suggesting sunlit Austrian landscapes. Brahms said that the fields near where this work was composed were overflowing with melodies and melody is what stood out strongly in this first movement. Darker moments did come in with the trombones whose playing was superbly well controlled and disciplined. It is not easy to deliver such quiet well balanced playing on these instruments - so, well done!
Two players stood out for me in this first movement. These were Robert Martin for his lovely clear horn solo and Margaret Preston whose happy dancing flute had two gorgeous passages to play in this first movement. The upper strings too deserve praise for the glossy clarity of their playing that lit up the Brahmsian landscapes so beautifully.
The cellos gave us deliciously warm playing in the second movement and the whole woodwind choir was superb here.
The oboe led the third movement and again the winds were excellent. The quiet scurrying strings opened the finale which developed into a festive celebration reminiscent of the mood of the composer's Academic Festival Overture. Roger Williams drove his players well into this exciting conclusion to a fine performance. Jean Fletcher took over from Bryan Dargie as leader of the orchestra in Mozart's Piano Concerto in c minor KV 491 with Joseph Long as the soloist. The orchestra gave us a fine well balanced performance of the quite extensive opening before Joseph came in and seized our attention with his marvellously fluent performance. In the cadenza, his left hand made the melody sing out strongly while the right hand poured out Mozart's exquisite embellishments with amazing lightness and fluency. This was a contrast between the hands that emerged time and again throughout the whole movement.
It was the piano that led off into the Larghetto with Joseph making his melodic lines sing out strongly and seductively. But for me, the best part of the concerto arrived with the piano taking over the movement's orchestral theme in order to launch into a series of magnificently played variations. Once again, the woodwind section of the orchestra stood out in this movement. They seized the chance to give us their own lusty variation on the theme - overall another splendid performance.
It was interesting that Roger had chosen a rather unusual piece to conclude the concert. This was Liszt's Symphonic Poem, "Les Préludes". This is the kind of music that a few decades ago you would not have got away with including in a concert but it is splendid music and I was delighted to find it in Sunday's programme. It was one of the first pieces of classical music that I became familiar with - or at least part of it. At the age of eight or nine I went weekly to the Odeon's Saturday morning children's film shows and particularly enjoyed the Flash Gordon Serials whose musical director Clifford Vaughan (1893 - 1987) liberally plundered Liszt's score of Les Préludes. I was particularly impressed by the section near the beginning that uses all the brass players in full cry. I was impressed by it then and very much so again in the performance led by Roger Williams on Sunday. Liszt of course died long before the advent of Hollywood sound films but many of its earliest composers were inspired by his music even if they did not all resort to stealing it.
The Symphonic Poems are of course an art unto themselves and are certainly worth hearing. There is a lot more to Liszt's music than "space opera" and some of the quieter passages were beautifully played by Aberdeen Sinfonietta. The harp parts were played on keyboard by Drew Tulloch and worked splendidly well. This music gave the orchestra led once again by Bryan Dargie the opportunity to demonstrate their mettle and that they did - so once again, well done!