It takes an Englishman to use it to good effect, apparently. Peter Maxwell Davies's new Double Bass Concerto has plenty of Scotch snaps. On one occasion in the first movement, two horns even recall Berlioz's version of 'Scots Wha Hae' in his Rob Roy Overture. On top of this, the Concerto is a cantabile piece, full of long melodies with simple accompaniments, using gapped scales and pentatonic tags that bring to mind a misty background of Highland loch. Near the end there is a short cadenza in jig tempo.
None of this sounds at all absurd; on the contrary, there seem to be a number of intriguing dialogues in progress, between the traditional role of the double bass and its potential for lyricism, between the hilarious satire of Davies's famous Orkney Wedding and the quiet seriousness of his Strathclyde Concertos (of which this is the seventh), and even between the Davies of today, august, assured, romantic, and his grisly former self.
The work was premiered last November; Duncan McTier was giving the second performance at the Queen's Hall. The soloist should have been John Steer, principal bassist of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, but Steer has not fully recovered from a hand injury. Touchingly, Davies has worked in a duet for the two basses, soloist and intended soloist. McTier's extraordinary facility in harmonics - they are so close on the bass that you can play elaborate tunes - is exploited in the slow movement, which has the monster instrument fluting away on top of the whole ensemble.
Judith Weir's Isti Mirant Stella began with a high, glistening string chord. Penetrating this luminous cloud there came the stamp of heavily grounded chords, snatches of vagrant woodwind and a trace of march rhythm. Gestures both slow and quick bubbled upward, as though the eyes of a great company were turning, one by one, up towards the sky.
The title is a bit of bad Latin from the Bayeux Tapestry, inscribed on the scene of Halley's Comet, which appeared just before the Norman Conquest. Harold and his henchmen gaze up at the stylised object, somewhat like a Christmas decoration.
Weir is the gentlest and most exquisite kind of post-modernist, striking a pose somewhere between childlikeness and ridicule. The sound world is part interplanetary, part oversweet. It sounds as though the men are too stupid to understand the terrible omen; and there are hints, of dogs and pigeons and other farmyard personalities. The joke is certainly on the English; this was an evening of the most refined Scottish wit.
The orchestra played with the warmth and flow it manages regularly. Beethoven's Coriolan Overture and Haydn's 104th Symphony had plenty of energy and bonhommie, the little flute cadenzas in the Symphony causing no hindrance, but blossoming in the cracks of strongly-bound masonry.