Trio of Edinburgh Concerts Climaxes with First Performance of James MacMillan’s New Symphony

18/08/2019

Edinburgh International Festival [8] – Beethoven, Dvořák, MacMillan: Edinburgh, 17.9.2019. (SRT)

First performance of Sir James MacMillan’s Fifth Symphony (c) Ryan Buchanan

I – Nash Ensemble, Queen’s Hall.

Beethoven – Clarinet Trio in B-flat
MacMillan – Fourteen Little Pictures
Dvořák – Piano Trio in E minor ‘Dumky’ 

II – Stephen Farr (organ), BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, Joana Carneiro (conductor), Usher Hall.

MacMillanA Scotch Bestiary (Scottish premiere); Woman of the Apocalypse (Scottish premiere)

III – The Sixteen, Genesis Sixteen, Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Harry Christophers (conductor), Sir James MacMillan (conductor), Usher Hall.

MacMillan – Symphony No.2; Symphony No.5 ‘Le grand inconnu’ (world premiere)

No one’s officially labelling it as such, but this was effectively the EIF’s James MacMillan day. The composer turned 60 last month, and the whole of this week has seen a celebration of MacMillan’s music; but it reached a climax today, with two back-to-back concerts of his music in the evening, culminating in the world premiere of his Fifth Symphony.

The day had a tough beginning, though, with the fairly implacable world of his 1997 Fourteen Little Pieces for piano trio. The title is deceptive: for one thing the pieces are all woven together into a continuous whole with links and reminiscences between them. More importantly, however, their impact is anything but little! It’s a stark, forbidding sound world, whose opening judders with horror and which culminates in playing of strident frenzy from all three instruments. There are occasional moments of humour or tenderness, but blink and you’ll miss them, and at moments the piano is transformed into a giant, demented tolling bell. The music achieves some resolution at the end, but it’s a long way from being peaceful, and it’s not an especially grateful listen.

Thank goodness that the Nash Ensemble leavened their programme with works that allowed their lyricism to come right to the fore, with a Beethoven clarinet trio that was assertive in character, but which had humour and lyricism laced through it, Adrian Brendel’s sensationally smooth cello line taking centre stage in a slow movement that had the intensity of an operatic aria. There was songfulness of a very different kind in Dvořák’s Dumky trio: this time it was the folk song of a village party. This work relies for its effect on extremes of contrast, something the trio understood very well. Perhaps too well in places, because at times they took the tragedy and jollity to such extremes that they risked turning them into anachronisms. The unifying thread, though, was the sheer lyricism of the melodies. Repeatedly, I kept thinking I was listening to songs without words, and whether these were serious or comic, their overall impact was completely complementary.

And then for the evening it was total MacMillan immersion, in which there were delights aplenty, but the star was undoubtedly that new symphony, which was a triumph. The Fifth is MacMillan’s choral symphony, and it’s his meditation on the work of the Holy Spirit. That springs from MacMillan’s deeply held Catholicism, of course, but more than that, it’s also a meditation on the creative force. MacMillan sets texts ranging from the Bible, the ancient hymn ‘Veni Creator Spiritus’, and the mystical texts of St John of the Cross, and he structures the symphony’s three movements around three Biblical and mystical images for the Holy Spirit, which also happen to be three of the ancient elements: air, water and fire.

MacMillan uses this structure as an opportunity to explore a whole universe of colour using the wizards of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and The Sixteen, and he calls upon a whole range of extra-musical techniques – such as the chorus’s rhythmic breathing or the musicians smacking the bodies of their instruments – to explore different aspects of the Holy Spirit’s work. The three-part structure is a masterstroke: it gives the composer space to innovate, while giving the audience a clear way into the symphony’s heart, and as such it’s uniquely involving for a piece of contemporary music.

Each movement has a particular ebb and flow that carries emotional weight and musical coherence, the music gradually filling out like the wind in a sail for the first movement (wind), or swelling and retreating like a wave for the second movement (water), while steadily gathering more power for the finale (fire). I simplify with these descriptions, but MacMillan uses these shapes to create a work that is full of controlled waves of energy; something that’s easy to like and which held the audience gripped.

MacMillan worked triumphantly with Harry Christophers and The Sixteen to create his searing Stabat Mater, so it’s entirely appropriate that he should collaborate with them again for his new symphony: indeed, it was Christophers who conducted this premiere, doing a marvellous job with the structure and the colour. His chorus was augmented with the voices of Genesis Sixteen, The Sixteen’s Young Artists Scheme, and they did a fantastic job of evoking both the mystery and the power of the text. The solos carried crystalline power, and the power of the choral climaxes was strong while remaining clean.

Most importantly, however, this is an overwhelmingly positive work, conveying some of MacMillan’s faith and love for the divine force. It’s almost entirely tonal, its textures are delightfully colourful, and it’s full of melodies that are both appealing and attractive. It feels like the work of a master, somebody whose ability to write for orchestra and chorus has developed enormously. Next to this, the Second Symphony sounds quite angry and almost apprentice-like, even when conducted by the composer as it was here. It has its own merits, of course, and I liked the overall theme of a forward momentum that’s repeatedly interrupted, but its jagged sounds and mosaic of textures sound pretty immature in comparison. I’m sure there’s an element of choice there too, but MacMillan’s skill as an orchestrator has undoubtedly improved in the two decades since writing it, and when the two were played together the Fifth Symphony rather left the second in the shade.

There was a lot to enjoy in the afternoon concert, too, with a pair of contrasting works pointing up both the humour and the power of MacMillan’s work. A Scotch Bestiary is a concertante work for organ and orchestra, drawing inspiration from Mussorgsky’s Pictures and Saint-Saëns’ Carnival of the Animals to present a book of beasts which is on the one hand descriptive but, more importantly, evocative of mood and character. It’s a lot of fun, not least in the parody of Mussorgsky’s Promenade that accompanies the turning of the pages, and the organ is integrated into the orchestral picture rather than being a solo instrument per se. Woman of the Apocalypse, on the other hand, is a large scale tone poem, using fanfares as a recurring motif to evoke the End of Days, with a grand canvas leading to a conclusion of magisterial power.

The BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra summoned forces much larger than the SCO, and the kaleidoscope of colours was powerfully evoked. Stephen Farr deployed the Usher Hall organ with great skill, galumphing his way through the texture when necessary, and Joana Carneiro controlled things well, for all that she’s a very jerky, staccato presence on the podium.

This whole day climaxed where it should, though, in the appearance of a new work that’s as important as it is appealing. The crowd was on its feet for the final applause. How often do you see that for a new piece?

Simon Thompson

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