Solstice of Light, May 2015


Over many years, the Stonehaven Chorus have built a reputation for fine performances of challenging contemporary music often by composers with a Nordic background. Conductor Ralph Jamieson continued that tradition on Sunday with a remarkably successful performance of A Solstice of Light by Sir Peter Maxwell Davies.

Strictly speaking, Maxwell Davies is an English composer having been born in Salford Lancashire in 1934, however, mention his name to any music enthusiast, and the first thing that comes to mind is Orkney where he has lived for many years and for which he holds a deep affection. Music in Orkney is Maxwell Davies.

Strictly speaking too, Orkney is not a Nordic country (it remains part of Scotland) but its history is closely bound up with the “Norsemen” and that indeed is the title of one of the sections of A Solstice of Light, a setting for choir and organ with tenor soloist of a wonderfully colourful and atmospheric poem by the world renowned Orcadian poet George Mackay Brown. The poem, in nine sections tells the story of succeeding waves of settlers in Orkney from the Stone Age up to today’s uranium miners and oilmen, ending with a prayer to the patron saint of Orkney, St. Magnus, asking that these latest developments will be used only for peace in Orkney and throughout the world. Punctuating the vocal settings of the stanzas of the poem are five solo organ settings played with radiant brilliance by Kevin Bowyer, currently organist to the University of Glasgow and a world renowned expert on contemporary organ repertoire. The composer’s gritty harmonies brought vibrantly to life by Bowyer’s wonderfully imaginative organ registrations expressed everything from icy clarity and dazzling Nordic light, to the runs and cluster chords that suggested the “Earth-breakers and hewers of mighty stone” to crystalline dabs of chordal colour for “The White Weave of Peace”. Bowyer made the St. James organ speak in a language that it has probably never come anywhere near before.

The Stonehaven Chorus with conductor Ralph Jamieson and organist Kevin Bowyer

The choral writing is equally challenging suggesting the muscularity of early oarsmen, the mystery of the landscapes whether frozen or under dazzling Nordic sunlight or at the end, the sincerity of prayer. The singers of the Stonehaven Chorus put across the texts with admirable clarity; I did not miss a word. They managed every treacherous entry, every perplexing chord or counterpoint so that everything hung together so well and made believable musical sense. The chorus conveyed so much of the atmosphere of the poetry in their enthusiastic singing. The young tenor soloist Timothy Coleman was every bit as amazing. His diction was like a masterclass in the art of singing and there was a cutting edge to his tenor voice that was ideal for this music. Very few singers could have navigated the leaps, twists and turns in his vocal line with such perfect accuracy.

The second half of the concert was very different – far more tuneful. It opened with the Alto Rhapsody by Brahms. Mezzo Colette Ruddy was backed by Kevin Bowyer, this time on piano, by French horn players Tom Blasdale and Kevin Cormack and by the male voices of the Stonehaven Chorus. Although originally written with full orchestra, this performance captured the essentials of the work. Colette Ruddy captured the emphatic music of the opening as well as the luscious melody where she blended deliciously with the male voices of the choir. Four Songs for Women’s Chorus with two Horns and Harp featured Harpist Fearghal McCartan along with horn players Tom and Kevin. Tom Blasdale’s splendid horn playing was the highlight of the first song and the choir’s best performances were in the two central songs: Lied Von Shakespeare (Come away Death) and Wohin ich geh’.

The concert ended with Gustav Holst’s setting of the poem by John Keats, Ode on a Grecian Urn which is the second movement of his First Choral Symphony, also originally with orchestra but in this performance with Kevin Bowyer back on organ. This seemed to “kittle up” the chorus once again. They sang splendidly well putting across Holst’s very English chording. An extra bonus was the return of Colette Ruddy to sing the final words of the poem:

Beauty is truth, truth beauty, – that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.