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Fauré, MacMillan, and Beethoven: Martha Argerich, Philadelphia Orchestra, Charles Dutoit, 8 April 2005 (BJ)

The first of Charles Dutoit’s two weeks this spring with the Philadelphia Orchestra brought, from my personal point of view, two very pleasant surprises. One, following an agreeable performance of Fauré’s Pelléas et Mélisande suite, was the United States premiere of James MacMillan’s Third Symphony, and the other was Martha Argerich’s playing of the solo part in Beethoven’s First Piano Concerto.

Now 45, the Scottish MacMillan is highly regarded in many quarters, but my only previous experience of his music was not a propitious one. His big choral and orchestral piece Quickening, which the Philadelphia Orchestra presented three years ago, seemed to me too much apparatus and too little musical content: it sent me home happily humming to myself bits of Britten’s Spring Symphony, which I heard through it, but not at all happy with anything I actually heard in it. So I am delighted to report that MacMillan’s Symphony No. 3 is a very different and indeed an extremely impressive piece. Subtitled “Silence,” inspired by Shusaku Endo’s novel of that name, and inscribed to the Japanese writer’s memory, this is a one-movement structure a little over half an hour in length. It is scored for a large orchestra including triple winds, four percussion parts in addition to timpani, harp, and piano. But though there are a few outbursts of massive sonority, it is the quieter, more subtle end of the dynamic spectrum that prevails through much of the work, which frequently exploits multiple subdivided string parts. Its opening does not so much emerge from silence as it is wrung out of silence, to which it eventually returns after a passage that exactly reverses the initial lightly accompanied english horn solo.

What especially impressed me about this intensely serious and clearly intensely spiritual composition is its blend of strong formal organization with the magic yielded by an ear of the highest refinement and discrimination. It is, you might say, predominantly curved rather than straight-line music. Though richly chromatic and even microtonal in technique, its language is full of powerful tonal undercurrents. Rather than hitting you on the head, the work beguiles, persuades, and seduces. I enjoyed it enormously, and was equally impressed with the evidently dedicated and superbly polished performance that Dutoit drew from the orchestra.

Where Martha Argerich is concerned, I confess to having been very much in a minority over the years. I have never understood the gigantic reputation the Argentine-born pianist enjoys around the world: she can play more notes to the minute than almost anyone else, but where, I have always wondered, was the music? Well, here too I found myself unexpectedly bowled over – and, once again, delighted, because there are few things more delightful to a critic, or at least this critic, than discovering that someone he previously held in little regard is actually phenomenally gifted. In her playing of the concerto, lithely and affectionately supported by Dutoit and the orchestra, there was all the keyboard wizardry associated with her playing, but this time keyboard wizardry was not the subject of the performance – Beethoven was the subject. This was an interpretation compounded equally of brilliance and strength on the one hand and an often revelatory quietness, a profoundly searching delicacy of phrase and touch, on the other. I am greatly indebted to her for such illumination, and thrilled to have found out at long last what everyone has been making so much fuss about.

Bernard Jacobson

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Contributors: Marc Bridle (North American Editor), Martin Anderson, Patrick Burnson, Frank Cadenhead, Colin Clarke, Paul Conway, Geoff Diggines, Sarah Dunlop, Evan Dickerson Melanie Eskenazi (London Editor) Robert J Farr, Abigail Frymann, Göran Forsling, Simon Hewitt-Jones, Bruce Hodges,Tim Hodgkinson, Martin Hoyle, Bernard Jacobson, Tristan Jakob-Hoff, Ben Killeen, Bill Kenny (Regional Editor), Ian Lace, Jean Martin, John Leeman, Neil McGowan, Bettina Mara, Robin Mitchell-Boyask, Simon Morgan, Aline Nassif, Anne Ozorio, Ian Pace, John Phillips, Jim Pritchard, John Quinn, Peter Quantrill, Alex Russell, Paul Serotsky, Harvey Steiman, Christopher Thomas, John Warnaby, Hans-Theodor Wolhfahrt, Peter Grahame Woolf (Founder & Emeritus Editor)