While the flavour of this year’s St Magnus Festival was decisively Polish, as venue for the closing celebrations of Polska! Year, the mid-winterish fog shrouding the low-lying mainland was majestically Orcadian. Britten’s Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes, opening the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra’s Sunday night concert, seemed wildly appropriate in such ominous atmospheric conditions, approached by the conductor Martyn Brabbins with the impasto colour of an oil painter with a palette knife.
Poulenc’s bright, cinematic Gloria followed, the resonant Polish- Ukrainian soprano Olga Pasichnyk engaged in ethereal call-response with the impressive ranks of the St Magnus Festival Chorus, drawn from Orkney’s many isles. There were a few off-notes and thin areas, but no issue whatsoever with their excellent singing of the main event, the premiere of Peter Maxwell Davies’s Proverb.
A three-minute gift to the outgoing festival director Glenys Hughes, Maxwell Davies’s piece for choir and strings set a 13th-century inscription from Syrian castle, Krak des Chevaliers, warning of the dangers of pride. It was quiet, substantial, modest, ending with a sudden, chilling discord; Hughes was overwhelmed.
The following day, under the worn, warm stones of Kirkwall’s ancient St Magnus Cathedral, Scotland’s Hebrides Ensemble arked fluidly through Maxwell Davies’s arrangement of Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in C-sharp minor, the contemporary Polish composer Aleksander Kosciow’s brooding Ore Osse Oculo, and Maxwell Davies’s Renaissance Scottish Dances, touching ground an hour later, subtly transformed, with the Polish composer Pawel Mykietyn’s idiosyncratic 3 for 13, whose “play one note, miss three”, format was a little like listening to Bach through a doily.
But it was Yann Ghiro’s expressive, brilliant clarinet that impressed in Lutoslawski’s folky Dance Preludes, Philip Moore on piano. The premiere of Lewis Forbes’s Play Piece (Scots vernacular for a child’s playtime sandwich) had a marionettish lightness and much to impress, if an occasionally insubstantial stop-start structure.
An austere, circumspect little coastal church on the remote Deerness peninsula hosted a concert from Poland’s impressive Royal Quartet, briefly drowning out the skylarks with Schubert’s late String Quintet in C. The top Polish cellist Andrzej Bauer made up numbers, refined, sensitive, occasionally unbalancing the fluent unity of the Royals.
The celebrations closed with Trebunie Tutki, a much-loved folk band filtering everything from Polish politics to Bob Marley through the piercing whistles and rampant fiddling of shepherding tradition. Even Chopin, perhaps turning (in time) in his bicentennial grave, got a good-natured tribute from his compatriots.