St Magnus Festival

Norwegian Radio Orchestra

Pickaquoy Centre, Kirkwall

Duo Van Vliet and Joseph Shiner

St Magnus Cathedral, Kirkwall

Hazel Rowland

THE NORWEGIAN Radio Orchestra is not a frequent visitor to the UK, but after their final performance at the St Magnus International Festival, listeners will be hoping they become so. Opening with excerpts from Peer Gynt by their compatriot Grieg was always going to be a winner. Yet their conductor Miguel Harth-Bedoya also ensured this well-known piece was magnificent rather than corny, especially during the famous first movement, Morning Mood. Of course, he was well supported by his musicians: Jake Mendis-Fridkis produced utter sweetness during his opening solo, matched by Trygve Aarvik’s response on the oboe.

Pianist Steven Osborne joined for Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G. Despite the impressive speed the first movement demands, Osborne played with effortless smoothness. His ease however meant the movement lost some of its thrill, but he offset this in the second movement, where his simple opening solo was utterly captivating. Keeping with the festival’s contemporary focus, the orchestra then gave the British premier of Victor Agudelo’s La Madre de Agua (Mother Water). This quirky piece was brash rather than subtle, with long passages of a relentless tune becoming rather wearisome. It supposedly depicts a Colombian aquatic divinity, though how exactly was not obvious.

Sibelius’s Symphony No.5 gave the orchestra opportunity to show-off. We were treated to the beautiful round sound of the horns, while in the final movement the strings expertly moved from lightness to melancholy. The orchestra’s enjoyment was palpable – one could detect several smiles as players awaited their entrance. Meanwhile, Harth-Bedoya excelled at navigating the twists and turns of Sibelius’s second movement, and in the last movement he boldly held the tense pauses between its final chords. With a such a performance, it was easily forgotten we were sitting in a rather less dreamy setting: a sports hall in Kirkwall’s local leisure centre.

A different experience came in the late-night concert in St Magnus Cathedral afterwards. Joined by the clarinettist Joseph Shiner, Duo Van Vliet – an unusual pairing of accordion and viola – presented a mixture of arrangements and contemporary works. The arrangements of songs by Dowland and Purcell were less convincing, with violist Ian Anderson failing to capture the emotional depth of these songs in a performance of limited expressive breadth. This may have been due to some deficiency in the arrangement: the balance between the instruments was often not right, with the accordion regularly overpowering the viola, preventing Anderson from playing quietly, as he risked not being heard.

Contemporary works by Simas Sapiega, Andrew Thomas, Freya Waley-Cohen and Toshio Hosokawa fared better, having been written specifically for these instruments. Asking the audience to listen to four contemporary works in a row after 10pm was a big ask, however, even if there were some moments of interest, such as the curious effect of a breathy accordion during Thomas’s The Sound of the Waves, which really sounded like the ocean. Shiner was nevertheless a captivating performer and enthralling in his off-stage performance of Messiaen’s Abîme des oiseaux. The gradual crescendo across long-held notes worked a treat, as Shiner’s unforced sound curled its way around the cathedral’s large space.