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Seen and Heard Concert Review


DARKNESS INTO LIGHT: The Music of James MacMillan, Barbican Hall, Friday 14th - Sunday 16th January 2005 (CC)



The music of James MacMillan cries out for a festival of this ilk. A composer whose (Christian) spirituality continually informs his music, whether explicitly stated or not, MacMillan’s music treads the difficult line between approachability and tough harmonic language. Recordings on Black Box, Koch, Chandos and BIS have ensured a place for MacMillan in contemporary consciousness. Part of his success lies in the lucidity of his structures, a lucidity that enables the composer to investigate complex internal workings without listeners losing their way.

Although there were various activities during the daytimes of the weekend days, this report concentrates on the three evening concerts. Two were conducted by the composer himself, though Friday night was given over to Sir Andrew Davis (presiding over the BBCSO). A whole evening of MacMillan is a bit of an unknown quantity (or was), and in the end provided a wide-ranging experience. The three works were Tryst (1989), The World’s Ransoming (1996-6) and Quickening (1998).


Tryst was inspired by a poem by William Soutar (reproduced in the programme book). MacMillan originally set the love poem in 1984 as an old Scottish ballad. The work seems to have haunted MacMillan, as aspects of it reappear in After the Tryst (for Violin and Piano) and the music-theatre work Búsqueda. Tryst is a substantial statement (some 25 minutes in this performance). Andrew Davis seems to want to explore the dancing, lilting elements of the rhythmic play (himself bouncing up and down in the process, as he is prone to do). The BBCSO responded to the sense of occasion, though, with incisive bite and a real feeling for MacMillan’s use of consonance as an expressive device within his compositional armoury. Indeed, there was a string passage that emerged as almost Copland-like before calling Ives into the fray. Long lines, a MacMillan hallmark, were there in abundance, but with crisply drawn interruptive fragments written across their surfaces. Harmonies in Tryst are dark and richly expressive, enabling the almost outrageous collage-like contrasts (particularly the blues-derived bass clarinet) to stand out all the more. A memorable way to begin the Festival.


Celia Craig was the expert cor anglais soloist in The World’s Ransoming. Premiered in 1996 by the LSO under Nagano, this work is the first of three that form a triptych collectively named Triduum (the other two being the Cello Concerto and Symphony: Vigil). Another 25-minute work, the inspiration comes from Maundy Thursday, associating his material with the plainsong hymn ‘Pange Lingua’ and ‘Ubi caritas’. Unsurprising that Bach is invoked, too (the chorale, ‘Ach wie nichtig, ach wie flüchtig’, associated with the Eucharist) and, impressively, MacMillan managed to sound like MacMillan (as opposed to Berg) in doing so, despite painting on an overtly expressive canvas. MacMillan’s writing for his chosen solo instrument is remarkably effective. Often associated purely with melancholy (try Tristan or Dvořák Nine), there is something about watching a cor anglais player struggle with what must have been a fff marking against a full orchestra – the sense of strain is palpable, and definitely exciting. One definitely feels on the side of the underdog. Celia Craig possesses a remarkably wide expressive vocabulary, put to telling use here. The very sound of the cor anglais is so unique that even scored in the middle of a texture, the solo still comes through. MacMillan realised this, to telling effect.


A quirk of scoring is the use of an Ustovolskaya-like box (described as ‘plywood cube’ in Boosey’s orchestration list). Effective at first, it does after a while, admittedly, sound a little as if the builders are in, a shame as the beauty of this work still lingers in this reviewer’s memory (especially Craig’s marvellous handling of the ‘cadenza’ near the end of the work).


Quickening, to texts by MacMillan’s frequent collaborator Michael Symmons Roberts, celebrates birth and new life in often vivid, raw terms. The BBCSO was joined by the ever-magnificent Hilliard Ensemble ((David James, counter-tenor; Rogers Covey-Crump, Steven Harrold, tenors; Gordon Jones, baritone), the Choristers of Westminster Cathedral and the BBC Symphony Chorus. The work was actually premiered by these very forces in September 1999 (in Westminster Cathedral, whose acoustic space must have made for an impressive experience). Scored for large orchestra, plus various vocal ensembles, this is MacMillan painting on a huge canvas. Mostly impressively, too.


There are four movements, ‘Incarnadine’; ‘Midwife’; ‘Poppies’; ‘Living Water’. The first three are virtuoso compositions, marrying the richly-Romantic (string gestures in ‘Incarnadine’) with the dark, almost Birtwistle-like (think Earth Dances) ‘Midwife’. Indeed, the choral writing positively glows at times in this movement, to contrast with the nervy-ridden ‘Poppies’ (the third movement). A martial side-drum (MacMillan seems very alert to the accrued weight of meanings of orchestral sounds) joins steel drums and harp to explore new takes on the ‘messy’ side of birth. All the more of a shame, then, that ‘Living Water’, despite some beautiful opening sounds (temple bowls) and its evident dynamism, is the weakest movement. Hints of the filmic and a tendency to ramble mar this setting, leaving a curiously empty feeling at the end.


Saturday evening’s concert brought the BBCSO’s Northern sister, the BBC Philharmonic, to the Barbican. The composer himself conducted the other two evening concerts, both of which included a work by composers who have influenced him.


So it was that on Saturday John Casken’s 1995 Violin Concerto nestled in between three MacMillans. Britannia (the work that opened the concert), according to David Nice’s booklet note, is Macmillan on holiday. Certainly this 12-minute explosion of energy exudes a sense of abundance, with its Ivesian band meeting wha-wha trumpet, its ‘ethnic’ fiddle and drums, a duck as one whistle and West Side Story’s whistle as the other. Unsurprisingly the climax is magnificently manic, as if the music is trying to cling to its own material. As an occasional piece it is a riot, although at times it does sound as if it could be a functionally written work for a superior youth orchestra.


We need to hear more of the warm, coherent and welcoming music of John Casken. This performance of the Violin Concerto featuring the expert Daniel Hope, one trusts, will point concert promoters in the right direction. (Casken is a one-time teacher of MacMillan.) Setting the soloist against an ever-changing landscape (the work was written for Dmitri Sitkovetsky), it is the lyric impulse that pervaded the first movement (marked simply ‘Appassionato’). Hope, impressively, always found the line, projecting it and shaping it with evident care and love (there is always warmth here, despite the technical difficulties). Nowhere was this lyricism in evidence more than in the second movement (‘Cantabile’, a sort of disturbed pastoral). Interestingly, given Casken’s involvement with the North (Durham and Manchester), a trumpet solo had distinctly brass-band overtones. What made the ‘Marcato e ritmico’ finale so fascinating was the dichotomy that the music seemed to want to open out and yet could not, constrained by the insistent ongoing rhythmic play. A superb work I would love to hear again in concert, and soon.


Two MacMillan works formed the second half of this concert, the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis (2000) and one of MacMillan’s most famous works and the one that put him on the international map, The Confession of Isobel Gowdie (1990).


The Mag and Nunc is MacMillan in purely liturgical mode. The Magnificat was originally for choir and organ (and written for Wells Cathedral), while the Nunc was commissioned by Winchester Cathedral. The BBC Singers were in positively gorgeous voice for the hushed opening of the Magnificat, exhibiting sure balance. The brass interjections did actually sound as if they were transcribed from the organ stop, but the assertiveness of the Gloria was pure joy. A subterranean bass beginning top the Nunc led to escapee birds from Messiaen (after ‘According to Thy Word’). Most impressive was the ‘Amen’, set against crushing dissonances on the orchestra.


The Confession of Isobel Gowdie is probably MacMillan’s most famous work. In effect it is a Requiem for the ‘witch’ Isobel Gowdie, who confessed in 1662 to having been baptised by the Devil. But confessions of this kind were the result of sadistic torture, and MacMillan’s work is an attempt to atone for Scotland’s sins. The Confession of Isobel Gowdie is a remarkable work that calls for MacMillan’s full compositional vocabulary, not least in the way the music becomes, towards the end, increasingly radiant, this radiance being pitted against the most crushing of dissonances. The peak of the work’s development section is a thirteen-times repeated chord that ushers in a phantasmagoric sequence. The BBC Philharmonic revealed itself as every inch its southern sister’s equal. The confidence that marked the playing was little short of remarkable.


Finally, an orchestral concert of Macmillan’s Í (A Meditation on Iona) and Veni, Veni Emmanuel, sandwiching Harrison Birtwistle’s Exody. Back to the BBCSO, now conducted by the composer.


MacMillan describes Iona, the island where St Columba died in AD 597, as ‘a place of stark and desolate beauty, a focus of deep spiritual resonance and historical significance’, obviously elements designed to attract MacMillan. The resonant, chiming bells that double the initial theme invite in the puddles of peace that populate this work. This is meditative music, a string trio (with effective sharing, hocket-like, of lines between the two violins) making a deep effect. The use of such simple material to impart such a deep impact is remarkable indeed.


McMillan holds Sir Harrison Birtwistle’s music in the highest regard, so the inclusion of Exody, Birtwistle’s 1998 work for large orchestra, was welcome. It was to take a risk, though. Birtwistle speaks on a huger, more primordial level than does MacMillan, so would the ‘star’ of the Festival be upstaged?


In using the real registral extremities of the orchestra at the outset (as opposed to just high and low notes with a gap in between), Birtwistle sets up an awe-inspiring sense of space. The subtitle of Exody (itself a word not quite meaning ‘Exit’, more implying the means of exiting, the route or indeed manner of leaving) is ‘23:59:59’, the second before 24:00 hours simultaneously becomes 0:00. So despite its very time-specific subtitle, Birtwistle opts to play with means of playing with time, taking journeys, and examining those journeys’ ramifications.


Interestingly, MacMillan chose to exaggerate the legato-expressive elements particularly evident in Birtwistle’s long (never-ending) lines, but in doing so he muted the rawer elements in the process. Nevertheless a sense of the vast was tellingly conveyed, as was the typical Birtwistle approach to density: chock-a-block textures, but textures that glow from within nonetheless.


Finally, what must be MacMillan’s most popular piece to date, the percussion and orchestra Veni, Veni, Emmanuel of 1991/2, a work that has enjoyed over 300 performances. Theologically, the work explores the period between Advent and Easter and is based on the plainsong of the title.


There was a certain fascination in just watching the soloist, the supremely confident Colin Currie, as he scurried from one side of the stage to the other. On a purely sonic level, this is the closest MacMillan comes to the purely primal (maybe there was the intended link with Exody?). In addition, the pure beauty of some of the sonorities is telling in the extreme. Based on the Advent plainsong of the title, ‘heartbeats’ permeate the work’s fabric (according to the composer, representing the ‘human presence of Christ’), while a glowing chorale statement crowns the work. Of course, in a context such as this, the bells could be seen as evocative of church bells calling a congregation to prayer.


This was the ideal way to close the Festival, with a work that is immediately involving, performed with absolute mastery. MacMillan has not, it appears yet received his full due. Seen from that vantage point, this Festival was a huge leap in the right direction.



Colin Clarke





Tryst and Í (with Adam’s Rib and They Saw a Stone had been Rolled Away). Scottish CO/Swensen. BIS CD1019.


Veni, Veni, Emmanuel and Tryst. Colin Currie (percussion); Ulster Orchestra/MacMillan. Naxos 8.554167


The Confession of Isobel Gowdie c/w Symphony No. 3, ‘Silence’. BBC Philharmonic/MacMillan. Chandos CHAN10275; or c/w Tryst. BBCSO/Jerzy Maksymiuk. Koch 310502; or c/w Tuireadh and The Exorcism of Rio Sumpúl. BBC Scottish SO/Vänskä. BIS CD1169.


Magnificat & Nunc Dimittis  (also includes The Birds of Rhiannon). BBC Singers; BBC Philharmonic/MacMillan. Chandos CHAN9997


Britannia c/w The Beserking and Into the Ferment. BBC Philharmonic/MacMillan. Chandos CHAN10092.




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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)