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Edinburgh International Festival 2009 (2) - Made in Scotland:
Royal Scottish National Orchestra, Paul Daniel (conductor), Usher Hall, 16.8.2009 (SRT)

Sir Peter Maxwell Davies:
Symphony No. 5, An Orkney Wedding with Sunrise
James MacMillan: Britannia, The Confession of Isobel Gowdie

Let praise resound - Edinburgh’s Usher Hall has finally reopened for business! Having scuppered the end of season plans of both the SCO and RSNO the Usher Hall doors have opened for the Festival, and very good it looks too. The auditorium is largely unchanged and its acoustic remains excellent. The main innovations are spruced-up bar areas, new toilets and at last an end to the archaic isolation of the Upper Circle from the rest of the hall. Due to an extension it is now possible to walk to all three levels while remaining inside the building. The seemingly endless restoration isn’t over yet (!) but the hall is at last usable again. No doubt the directors of Scotland’s main musical ensembles are breathing a sigh of relief! It provided a suitable setting for this year’s very successful evening devoted to celebrating contemporary Scottish music. It’s only a pity that, unlike the performances of St Kilda, the evening was so poorly attended.

Max and Macmillan are surely the two most renowned composers working in Scotland today and this concert balanced two very well known works with two less so. The Symphony was completely new to me but made a huge impression. The opening is deeply haunting: two flutes and a clarinet eke out the bones of a theme which is slowly developed by the wider orchestra. The string writing is particularly vigorous, carrying the thrust of most of the work’s main motives, but the instrumentation as a whole is highly distinctive. The work’s sections run for roughly half an hour without a break and it tends to alternate fast and slow sections in a continuously evolving whole. It contains fiendishly virtuosic solo parts for most of the principal wind players and they all carried it off with aplomb, not least John Gracie’s remarkable trumpet cadenza. The most striking moment for me was the final sequence as the strings carried their theme into oblivion, slowly fading to a final stroke. The effect was wonderful and made a suitable contrast to the rollicking Orkney Wedding that followed. There is an irresistible sense of fun to this work, depicting the evening celebrations following, yes, an Orkney wedding, the orchestra bandying the various dance themes around with palpable vigour. The strings bore the weight again for the first part of the work, but they gave way to some remarkably characterful solos which, together with Daniel’s ultra-flexible pacing, gave an extremely successful picture of the villagers’ increasing inebriation. The master-stroke of the piper to evoke the dawn at the end was very successful and the final sunrise sequence raised the roof.

MacMillan’s Britannia was commissioned in 1994 as part of BT’s Celebration Series which provided all the UK’s leading orchestras with a new concert overture for the 1994/5 season. It’s a fantasy which has a great time parodying various “patriotic themes” by the likes of Elgar and Arne and the first section has a somewhat zany, almost comical element to the way the orchestra relishes its quotations, not least in the raucously inventive percussion (including a sistrum and motor horn). The central canon is much more reflective, however, leading to a searching coda which is a world away from the celebratory opening.

That searching element was present in the evening’s highlight, MacMillan’s remarkably successful Confession of Isobel Gowdie. This is MacMillan’s response to the Scottish witch craze, inspired by the account of the outlandish accusations and brutal treatment meted out to Isobel Gowdie when she was burnt as a witch in Nairn in 1662. It premiered at the Proms in 1990 and has probably done more than any other work to establish MacMillan’s name internationally. An intense, violent central section, suggesting Gowdie’s sufferings and death, is framed by two piercingly intense string meditations that are not a million miles from the world of Strauss’s Metamorphosen. The opening of the work would test any string orchestra, but the RSNO piled layer upon layer of subtlety onto the remarkable score, guided by Daniel’s concentrated direction. The central section was savage but not mindless, with plenty of subtlety from each section. While they may well have seemed like the crowd at a burning, each section also had a distinctly individual contribution to give and the effect was extraordinary. When the intense string playing returned at the end the tone was darker and much more unsettled, clearly shaken by the horrific experience the players had relived. The cumulative final chord was ear-splitting, but was it confident, redemptive or merely the reassertion of the blind ideology that had caused Gowdie’s suffering in the first place? It’s not hard to see why this work has been so successful and a performance like this made it come alive in a remarkably fresh way.

The biggest ovation of the evening was saved for MacMillan himself when he came on stage at the end, but the playing of the RSNO was the finest I’ve heard from them all season. They responded brilliantly to Daniel’s rock-steady direction and perhaps their return to such a beloved venue. A great evening that reaffirms one’s faith in contemporary music. Top marks to all involved.

The Edinburgh International Festival runs until Sunday 6th
September at venues across the city. For full details go to

Simon Thompson


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