If James MacMillan’s second symphony,
‘Vigil’, had been a conspicuously religious work, dealing with the central
metaphors of lightness and darkness, birth and rebirth, his third symphony,
‘Silence’, the title being taken from Shusako Endo’s novel of the same
name, takes a more panoramic view where the physical spaciousness of silence
is recalled as an overt religious rite. Endo’s novel had examined the
theory that behind the great tragedies, torture and genocide of the century
"God remains with folded arms, silent". MacMillan’s symphony
answers that in music that is both profoundly unsettling as well as ominously
Written in a single, 35 minute
movement, it is arguable that behind the wider synthesis of the work
is a certain lack of coherence: yet, just as MacMillan inserts a physical
bar of silence at both the beginning and end of the symphony (rather
than rest marks to suggest it) it is the very insertion of these bars
throughout the symphony that gives it the scope of a symphonic work,
the illusion that it something it is perhaps not. There is a Beethovenian
sense of struggle around the work’s big central climax – which itself
collapses into silence – just as there is a similar culmination to the
wild scherzo - lacerating brutality that precipitates the awe of stillness.
If the opening – a cor anglais solo over doubled cello harmonics - suggests
the opening of Tristan then the end of the work with aspirate
horns suggests the opening of Rhinegold, a moment that recalls
the passion of renewal and hope.
Musically, ‘Silence’ can be quite
striking sonically. Climaxes are never congested, the sign that a skilled
orchestrator is at work, and its influences stretch from both western
to eastern. The deep droning of combined contra-bassoons, double basses
and contra-bass-clarinet aptly contrast with the use of plucked piano
strings, plucked harps and sliding microtonal strings to suggest a Japanese
soundworld. Marimbas, gongs and a thundersheet progress the allusion
to a far eastern philosophy. Expansive percussion create a nether world
of Varesian drama, reminiscent of his apocalyptic Ameriques.
Yet, what is so striking about the work, at least on a first hearing,
is its clearly defined sense of contrast. Desolation and emptiness grow
organically into hope and rebirth lending us to believe that the central
premise of Endo’s book is not one that MacMillan himself determines
to be a universal Catholic truth.
The BBC Philharmonic, under the
direction of the composer, gave a beautifully controlled performance,
both skilled and dedicated.
Not quite the same level of interest
was generated by the two other works which filled out this concert.
Strauss’ Vier Letze Lieder, sung by the Italian soprano
Barbara Frittoli, were curiously soul-less, the voice undeniably beautiful
but unwilling to commit to the greater understanding of Strauss’ last
completed – and death-haunted – work. Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, heroically
played by an on-form BBC Philharmonic, generated sufficient excitement
under the baton of Gianandrea Noseda but was neither revelatory nor