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James MACMILLAN (b.1959)
The Confession of Isobel Gowdie
Tuireadh for clarinet and strings (1991)
The Exorcism of Rio Sumpul (1989)
Martin Fröst (clarinet)
BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra/Osmo Vänskä
Recorded at City Hall, Glasgow, September 1999 (Confession), Studio 1, BBC Scotland, Glasgow, January 2000 (Tuireadh), September 1999 (Exorcism)
BIS CD-1169


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At last! This was my initial reaction to BIS’s latest release in their MacMillan series. Although Jerzy Maksymiuk’s 1992 recording of The Confession of Isobel Gowdie has served the catalogue well for a decade (and indeed helped the piece reach a much wider public), I always had a feeling that more justice could be done to the work. The orchestra is the same as that earlier Koch recording (and the world premiere), but they now have the piece well and truly in their system. The recording quality is also a step up, and reveals even more depth and beauty in MacMillan’s orchestral palette.

Vänskä has latterly turned the BBC Scottish S.O. into a really world class band. The rapt modal string threnody near the start of the piece (a sort of neo-Tallis Fantasia) affords us a taste of the string sonority they can now produce. This very passage has more urgency on the earlier disc, but is a whole lot scrappier in execution. In fact, it sounds at times like a run through, complete with extra studio noise (knocking of stands, shuffling etc.). This new version comes at us from a great distance, wonderfully atmospheric and hushed. Vänskä takes his time, leading us through the clear narrative of the programme (the martyrdom of a Catholic ‘witch’) with unerring concentration. The cumulative effect, especially as the tension mounts towards the horrifying climactic immolation, is vividly realised, and he better integrates the undisguised echoes of other composers into the texture. Listeners unfamiliar with the piece may be taken aback at the clear references to Copland, Messiaen, Stravinsky (the eleven hammered-out crotchets from The Rite), and, most tellingly of all, the famous single-note crescendo from Berg’s Wozzeck with which Isobel Gowdie ends. Don’t let this put you off; MacMillan’s self-styled pluralism is as emotionally direct as anything in Mahler and Shostakovich, composers with whom he has a strong affinity. In the final analysis, Vänskä gets us to that emotional core more effectively, and one is wrung dry by the end. The feeling that MacMillan is writing from the heart is borne out by his words in the published score, "the work … offers Isobel Gowdie the mercy and humanity that was denied her in the last days of her life. This work is the Requiem Isobel Gowdie never had".

The two companion works on the disc are particularly appropriate, coming as they do from a year either side of Isobel Gowdie. The Exorcism of Rio Sumpul, written in 1989, may, at first, seem to be a dry run for the later piece, but though it was similarly composed in reaction to a shocking event, the overall effect is more positive. The background, as Stephen Johnson’s excellent note tells us, is thus: in 1986, the El Salvador army made a savage helicopter attack on a village in the valley of the River Sumpul. Surprisingly no one was killed, and as the villagers emerged from hiding, the parish priest began a bizarre comic dance, eventually joined by the whole village as they rejoiced at being spared, and exorcising the trauma of the attack. It amounts to a short three-movement symphony, with individual sections entitled ‘Assault’, ‘Reflection’ and ‘Exorcism’. Originally scored for chamber forces, it here gets a taut, direct and strikingly bold performance in its full orchestral guise.

There is also a clear link to the third piece, Tuireadh for clarinet and strings (originally string quartet), which dates from a year after Isobel Gowdie, but was again a highly personal artistic reaction to a great tragedy, this time much closer to home. Tuireadh is Gaelic for lament, and was written in response to the Piper Alpha explosion, in particular a letter MacMillan received from the mother of one of the victims. She described to him the memorial service held at the scene of the tragedy, and told how "a spontaneous keening sound rose gently from the mourners assembled in the boat". This is clearly reflected in the music, which is full of ‘keening’ sounds from the clarinet, as well as a ‘sighing’ motif which recurs hypnotically in the strings. One could take this as the endless swell of the sea (or maybe the ‘endless’ quality of grief?), and certainly pictorial images are very audibly represented – even the seagulls are present in the high clarinet shrieks. This is a very personal response to a very public disaster, and the restless nature of the music, by turns violent and contemplative, sobbing and wailing, gives us a harrowing yet deeply felt picture of the devastation it caused. The performance is exemplary, with Martin Fröst’s virtuosic clarinet played with a controlled frenzy that is direct and powerful.

This is a welcome continuation of BIS’s MacMillan series, and is well up to the house standards. Liner notes, as mentioned, are perceptive and readable, and recording quality outstanding, with a fullness and bloom to the sound that is ideal.

Even if you have the valuable first recording of Isobel Gowdie (also well coupled with Tryst, but much shorter playing time), lovers of the approachable face of contemporary music should snap this up.

Tony Haywood

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