An Important MacMillan Première Opens the RSNO Season

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Britten, MacMillan, Holst: Jean-Yves Thibaudet (piano), Ladies of the RSNO Chorus, Royal Scottish National Orchestra, Peter Oundjian (conductor), Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 4.10.2013 (SRT)

Britten: Simple Symphony
MacMillan: Piano Concerto No. 3, “The Mysteries of Light” (UK Première)
Holst:  The Planets

Some seasons open with a surprise (like the Scottish Chamber Orchestra’s Beatrice & Benedict).  Some, like this one, open with a blockbuster that packs both the hall and the stage.  The Planets is reliable box office and a reliable good time, and I suspect we’d hear it even more often if it didn’t require so many people to perform it.  Tonight’s performance did all it was supposed to do, namely show off all the orchestral colours like a revolving mirror in music of diverse drama.  Everyone had their moment in the sun, but repeatedly it was the brass that I found most impressive: thunderous in Mars, buoyant in Jupiter, sinister in Saturn, anarchic in Uranus, they really sounded top notch tonight, especially the trombones and tubas.  Peter Oundjian, commencing his second season as RSNO Music Director, shaped the whole suite with mostly the right contours and dynamics.  Mars was rather unrelentingly loud, but elsewhere there was plenty of light and shade and, for me, the highlight was a reading of Saturn that seemed to carry something genuinely dark at its heart.

In a year bursting with War Requiems, Grimeses and Budds, it’s good to get a reminder of Benjamin Britten’s lighter side in his (only slightly misleadingly titled) Simple Symphony.  Light as is the “Playful Pizzicato”, though, Oundjian’s reading reminded us that this is a work of depth as well as playfulness, most obviously in the surprisingly rich Sarabande which seemed to pulsate with soulful string tone that was almost too mature for the material it was playing.

James MacMillan is the leading light of contemporary Scottish composers, so it’s fitting that it should be the RSNO that gave the UK première of his Third Piano Concerto, and even more fitting that it should be played by Jean-Yves Thibaudet, for whom the work was composed.  In his programme note Macmillan, whose Catholic faith informs an enormous amount of what he does, writes how the concerto was inspired by the ancient practice of writing music based on the structure of the Rosary, Biber’s Mystery Sonatas being the most famous example.  Each of the sections of his concerto is named after a Catholic Mystery (such as the Baptism of Christ or the miracle at Cana), but MacMillan is at pains to point out that his music is not an attempt to interpret the liturgy: instead, “the event becomes the springboard for a subjective reflection.”  The most obvious parallel comes in the fourth section, inspired by the Transfiguration, which has a tremendous wave of sound that then subsides into something much more contemplative and gentle.  Much of the work, in fact, seems to work through a series of enormous contrasts, and the kaleidoscopic effect MacMillan draws from the large orchestra he deploys is very impressive.  That’s not to say that there aren’t melodies too, though: there are some very beautiful moments, such as the cantabile interlude for the piano and cellos in the third section, or the mysterious incantatory episode of the finale.  He also deploys a recurring plainchant-like melody to give the work some structural unity.  I have been by no means a flag-waver for MacMillan in the past, but I found this concerto interesting, involving and, in places, very moving.  Oundjian and the orchestra had done a great job at getting inside the piece and finding just the right colour for each section, while Thibaudet managed to make the piano part sing, not just in the lyrical episodes but also in the technically demanding passages which seemed to serve an end rather than being just for show.  Writing in a programme note on what it is like to play in a première, Katherine Wren, an RSNO violist, pointed out that “not everything we play will pass into the repertoire.”  True, but I suspect that this is a work that we’ll be hearing again before long.


Full details of the RSNO 2013-14 season can be found here.


Simon Thompson