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S & H Prom Review

PROM 9: James MacMillan Première, BBC Philharmonic, Royal Albert Hall, 24thJuly, 2003 (MB)

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 restful.

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 especially subtle.

Marc Bridle






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