Where Scotland Meets Ireland

19 March 2022
Rob Barnett

“It spoke as a massive and ambitious climax to the evening. This was crucially aided by a most accomplished wind section and a gloriously fulsome brass section.”

Celtic Collisions

Hamish MacCunn – The Land of the Mountain and the Flood (1887)
Max Bruch – Scottish Fantasy (1880) with Shuwei Zuo (violin)
Malcolm Arnold – Four Scottish Dances (1957)
Amy Beach – Symphony in E minor (Gaelic Symphony) (1897)

The Todmorden Orchestra’s Spring concert again affirmed its refusal to venture beyond rutted choices. The programme, with its Scottish theme, kicked up sand and dust with ceilidh abandon and risk-taking.

Some may know Hamish MacCunn (1868-1916) from such exotica as the opera Jeannie Deans or the concert overtures The Dowie Dens o’Yarrow or The Ship o’ the Fiend but Tod’s Town Hall was to hear his most popular concert overture, The Land of the Mountain and the Flood. Part of the overture formed the signature tune for BBCTV’s Sutherland’s Law (1973-76) and EMI had it brandishing the Scottish flag in its long-lived four nations collection: Music Of The Four Countries, dating back to vinyl days in 1978 not to mention its more recent presence on an all-MacCunn CD from Hyperion. The orchestra of some 53 players artfully evoked the mist and mysteries. From this emerged a stoic march enhanced by the occasional skirl. It was all done with molto passione – even if the composer’s embattled cymbal crashes were over the top. That detail aside the intense atmosphere was finely sustained.

Another piece with some audience ‘pull’ (recordings by Heifetz, Oistrakh, Chung, Campoli, Little among others) completed the first half. Bruch, who was a fixture “down the road”, in Liverpool (1880-83) wrote this substantial piece which vies with this three violin concertos. The Scottish Fantasy is in four movements is dedicated to Sarasate. It’s a substantial piece and quite moody, lyrical and discreet in the hands of soloist Shuwei Zuo. Her finely spun, lyrical, violin sound rose shoulder-high for the most part. The work ends with accustomed fireworks. This was against the backdrop of the full orchestra with the harp, on occasion, registering strongly as it should given that the work’s title declares the Fantasy to be “für die Violine mit Orchester und Harfe”. The work was completed in the first year of his time with Liverpool Philharmonic Society.

The concert had opened, topically, with an understated, yet soulfully attractive, Malcolm Arnold piano piece (Variations on a Ukrainian theme). It was played in a brief arrangement – made locally, and well – for clarinet and strings. Arnold the dazzling maestro took over for the Four Scottish Dances. It had been premiered at the Royal Festival Hall on 8 June 1957 with the BBC Concert Orchestra conducted by the composer. Here the Town Hall echoed thunderously to the strathspey, reel and fling in all their tartan flummery and occasionally whiskey-infused (familiar from his Tam O’Shanter and Hobson’s Choice) uppitiness. The composer left us in no doubt of his mastery of poetry in the third dance which was most beautifully sung: “a calm summer’s day in the Hebrides”. Breathtaking indeed. It might have been unconventional to do so but the Arnold Dances might better have ended the concert to provide an emotional upswing.

Amy Beach’s substantial four movement (40 minute) Gaelic Symphony concluded the evening. This had been written a decade after the MacCunn and some two decades after the Bruch. It was recorded many years ago by the Royal Philharmonic under Karl Krueger (Bridge) and more recently” by Neeme Järvi on Chandos (CHAN8958) and Kenneth Schermerhorn (Naxos). Recently there was even a studio broadcast (8 March 2022) of the work by the BBCSO under Sakari Oramo. Broadcasts and recordings are one thing but real concert performances quite another. It spoke as a massive and ambitious climax to the evening. This was crucially aided by a most accomplished wind section and a gloriously fulsome brass section (complete with five horns and tuba). Perhaps it was the Beach’s very unfamiliarity that played against it; in any event the applause began to fade before the conductor had thanked the triumphant leaders and sections of the orchestra. It was a complex and unfamiliar work well done.

As for risks the conductor and this well rounded orchestra are not yet done. On 25 June 2022 we get to hear Kalinnikov’s triumphantly attractive First Symphony.

Rob Barnett