Thursday 24 January 2008

Farewell to Stromness . . . and the January blues

A melancholic January cloud has descended upon me - despite today's intermittently glorious weather - and I've been listening to music which echoes that mood, since I know from experience that anything jolly will simply jar and annoy me rather than cheering me up.

One of my downbeat iTunes du jour has been Peter Maxwell Davies’s Farewell to Stromness - a wistful piano interlude from The Yellow Cake Revue, a sequence written in protest against uranium mining in the Orkney Islands. The Revue was first performed at the St Magnus Festival, Orkney, by Eleanor Bron, with the composer at the piano, in June 1980.

I was captivated by the original piano version when I first heard it back in the 80s and then I rediscovered it three or four years ago when it was used as the soundtrack to a wonderful R4 play by Colin Macdonald, Hill of Rains, starring Bill Paterson and Lorelei King (surely two of the very best voices in radio drama and what a joy to hear them together in this transatlantic love story).

Farewell to Stromness was absolutely perfect as a leitmotif in this story of two lonely, troubled people from opposite ends of the world who meet in the south-west Highlands. He’s a librarian, she’s over from New York, researching some family history. On their first encounter they dislike each other quite fiercely, but gradually, through their shared love of music and words, and a day spent walking in the hills and getting thoroughly drenched in a very Scottish downpour . . . well, yes, of course (it being a love story and everything), they fall in love. It had a tremendously romantic ending and I ‘listened again’ to it every day for a week!

(I also promptly ordered the sheet music and learned to play [the easy bits of] it [very badly] on the piano. Bit of a lost cause, me and the piano, these days.)

Apparently, hearing Maxwell Davies giving the premier performance of Farewell to Stromness inspired a member of the audience, Timothy Walker, to transcribe it for solo guitar, which he performed himself, two days later, in Kirkwall Cathedral, as part of the same Festival. I hadn't known that when I came across the guitar version by chance, on Graham Anthony Devine's album of British Guitar Music. (Regular readers will know that I have a bit of a thing about classical guitarists . . .!)

This is what Classical Guitar Magazine said about Mr Devine in 2006:

‘Fluency, beautiful tone, power, clarity, timing, phrasing, technical brilliance, a keen musical intelligence- none of these is a stranger to the guitar recital hall, but this young player confounds criticism by possessing them all, and in spades. We can expect even greater things, my guess is that Graham Devine is well on his way to becoming a musician of stellar magnitude.’

Here he is, playing Farewell to Stromness, accompanied by some lovely images of Orkney.


monix said...

More wistful than downbeat, J. I hope your gloom has lifted. Thank you for lovely music and those beautiful images of Orkney.

Rob said...

You've started me off now- Orkney is one of my favourite places, and I haven't been for three years. Got to go back...

Juliet said...

M - it is lovely, isn't it? (well it is until I try to get my hands round it on the piano - there are a surprisingly large number of notes for such a simple-sounding tune!) Gloom will lift as soon as Feb arrives (and then quickly descend again on 3 Feb - you'll find out why on the day!)

Rob - hmm, know the feeling, but count yourself lucky it's only been three years - it's many more since I was last there. Glad to see you're safely back after your Malaysian adventures. Sounds as though the whole thing was a resounding success!

Rob said...

Yes, back and wishing I'd had more time. I will blog a little more about Malaysia.

Juliet said...

Oh good - look forward to reading it.