Piper Alpha Disaster Recalled in Macmillan’s Powerful Tuireadh

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Sibelius, Volans, MacMillan, Kodály: Maximiliano Martín (clarinet), Scottish Chamber Orchestra / Garry Walker (conductor), Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh, 23.01.2013 (SRT)

Sibelius: Pelléas et Mélisande
Volans: Daar Kom die Alibama
MacMillan: Tuireadh
Kodály: Dances of Galánta


It’s hard to think of a single European play (outside of Shakespeare) that has inspired more non-literary responses than Pelléas et Mélisande.  Debussy’s opera will always be its most famous incarnation, but Schönberg, Fauré and Sibelius all gave it famous musical treatments too.  I’m used to hearing Sibelius’ incidental music played by a symphony orchestra, but aspects of it work very well with a chamber orchestra.  The austere melody and archaic harmonies of the opening came across surprisingly well (helped, perhaps, by the intimate acoustic of the Queen’s Hall) and the delicacy of the various portraits of Mélisande came as a positive improvement.  It was the gorgeous melody for her death scene that worked best of all, though, the muted strings sounding distant yet present, not that far from the eternal feeling of dislocation that the play poses.

The orchestral colour was very striking for Sibelius’ suite, and so it was for Kodály’s brilliant Dances of Galanta, which sparkled from start to finish.  Best of all, though, were the SCO’s superstar winds, which sounded top-notch from start to finish, and not only the clarinet that gets most of the solo action.  Garry Walker kept the whole thing moving with plenty of rhythmic vitality and, importantly, he managed the transition between dances very well so that the audience feels like it is listening to a coherent whole rather than a run-through of numbers.

Daar Kom die Alibama was the SCO’s 2010 Edinburgh International Festival commission.  I mentioned at the time that Kevin Volans didn’t fill me with confidence when he said that his piece contains “no themes, no motifs, no development and no climaxes.”  I wasn’t overly switched on to it back then, and hearing it again didn’t make me rate it any more highly.  He says that “the piece hovers in a state of unfulfilled anticipation from beginning to end,” which isn’t exactly a triumph of positive self-marketing.  The textures are striking enough and a lot of the sounds he creates are interesting, but musically I don’t think it has a lot going for it because it’s so self-consciously static.  It’s game of the SCO to revive the piece, but I struggle to see much of a future for it.

Not so James MacMillan’s Tuireadh, written in 1991 as a memorial to the victims of the 1998 Piper Alpha disaster.  The title comes from the Gaelic word for a lament (or requiem), but MacMillan’s response to the families’ loss is haggard and powerful.  It focuses on the rawness of grief, and not until the final section is there anything which hints at consolation.  Scored for strings and solo clarinet, its opening, with the clarinet sounding a series of notes from their very quietest to their very loudest, suggests the spontaneous keening sound of the mourners at a memorial service at sea, mentioned to MacMillan by a woman whose son died in the disaster.  I especially liked the mysterious central section, which pitted the ominously trilling clarinet against glassy string harmonics; but what will stick with me the most is the rhythm of the strings, suggestive of the waves of the sea, the spontaneous grief of the mourners, and the bleak expanse of the ocean.  A very powerful piece.

Simon Thompson