Webmaster: Len Mullenger
Seen and Heard International Concert Review
MacMillan, Prokofiev, Brahms: Midori (violin), New York Philharmonic, Marin Alsop (conductor), Avery Fisher Hall, New York City, 15.10.2005 (BH)
MacMillan: The Confession of Isobel Gowdie
Prokofiev: Violin Concerto No. 1
Brahms: Symphony No. 1
James MacMillan’s The
Confession of Isobel Gowdie
(that put him on the compositional map), Marin Alsop
turned to the audience to comment on its subject matter:
a Scottish woman who was one of thousands suspected
of witchcraft between 1560 and 1707.
After confessing to being baptized and raped
by the devil, she was tortured, strangled at the stake,
and then burned. Alsop’s
wry humor – “Sorry, I know some of you just expected
a nice night out, and now this” – helped warm
up the crowd in a bit of “Bernstein education mode.”
She and the orchestra demonstrated certain
key passages, such as a quiet motif in the strings
that represents Gowdie softly
crying, and then at the other end of the spectrum,
a hymn tune buried in the orchestra at full throttle,
with cacophony that would do Charles Ives proud.
After a quiet opening, Macmillan gradually
increases the decibel level, ever more piercing, depicting
the horrible pain inflicted on Gowdie,
culminating in a violent middle section filled with huge orchestral outbursts, and then
recedes, perhaps accompanying Gowdie’s
ascent into a calmer plane as she finds some peace
in death. It
is easy to see why this work got MacMillan
noticed: although contemporary, it is written in an
idiom that is occasionally more tonal than not (as
with say, Arvo Pärt), with a keen attention to orchestral color. I’m a great admirer of MacMillan’s work, having
heard his impressive Third Symphony (“Silence”)
and sonically unhinged A Scotch Bestiary last
season, and although I don’t think Gowdie is quite in the same league, as an earlier work
it is valuable for its insight into his growth.
Alsop has been making a lot
of press lately, including her new recording of the
Brahms Symphony No. 2 for Naxos, which I have
yet to explore. I
didn’t quite know what to make of this reading, although
it had many fine moments, and was firmly anchored,
again, by some deliciously warm and precise playing
from the Philharmonic.
The orchestra’s superb timpanist made the most
of the desolate opening, and the horns, crucial here,
were as silken and mysterious as one could ask for.
Carter Brey’s cello
colleagues sang like angels.
As far as sheer sound goes, the orchestra continued
its continuing demonstration that it is one of the
world’s great ensembles.
What was missing was that last element of Brahmsian
magic – that quality of darkness and light, of ebb,
flow and pulse that is so wondrous with this composer.
Too often the phrasing seemed halting, just
a bit hesitant, with no compensatory virtues such
as greater resonance or clarity.
It wasn’t “bad,” just a bit ordinary, and although
this is a familiar work it is far from ordinary.