MacMillan’s Percussion Concerto Contunues to Sound Fresh

 United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Vaughan Williams, MacMillan, Sibelius: Colin Currie (Percussion), Scottish Chamber Orchestra / John Storgårds (conductor) Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 10.04.2014 (SRT)

Vaughan Williams:   Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis
MacMillan:                       Veni, Veni Emmanuel
Sibelius:                        The Swan of Tuonela
Symphony No. 6


James MacMillan’s percussion concerto, Veni, Veni, Emmanuel, was commissioned by the SCO and written in 1992.  It has since, become one of Macmillan’s most popular works, with multiple recordings and performances, and 22 years later it still sounds remarkably fresh.  MacMillan revels in the infinite variety of textures you can get out of his percussion ensemble (including gongs, marimba, vibraphone and drums of every shape and size), but he doesn’t seek out dissonance for its own sake.  Instead he often pits the soloist’s manic energy against a gently undulating, harmonic backdrop from the orchestra, and one of the questions that kept coming to my mind as I listened was how much the piece was a refined conversation between soloist and orchestra, and how much it was petulant argument.  If it was an argument then it was harmony and cooperation that finally won, and there is a wonderful sense of transitioning into light during the magical moment at the end where the soloist intones the chant melody on huge bells while the orchestra gently tinkles their own set of tiny bells and triangles.

It’s one of those pieces that helps to be seen as well as heard, because watching Colin Currie hit his instruments and then pirouette between each set was like watching a routine choreographed for an Olympic sprinter turned ballet dancer.  From the flourishes on the vibraphone that he dashed off in the opening minutes to the dazzling routines on the drums or the gentle pulsing of the marimba you could easily see why he has become a star.  He understands the structure and the feel of this work very impressively, and watching him on the drums was like watching MacMillan’s rhythmic pulse being given human form.

Elsewhere, there was Finnish music from a Finnish conductor, but not until we had heard a spellbinding performance of the Tallis Fantasia.  It’s the first time I’d heard this work with a chamber orchestra, and if the wash of string sound that characterises Vaughan Williams’ world was a little less luxurious than you’re used to then this was offset by the gain in subtlety and, especially, the delicious way that it became that little bit more difficult to tell where the border lay between silence and music.  The same was true for The Swan of Tuonela, which seemed to have been conjured up out of the story’s dark mists, and which sported not just an outstanding cor anglais solo from Rosie Staniforth but also a delicately nuanced cello solo from guest lead Alexei Kiseliov.

That chamber music delicacy was also apparent in Sibelius’ 6th Symphony, for all that the orchestra’s numbers were augmented slightly.  This helped to give plenty of space in the middle textures, letting plenty of Nordic daylight shine through, especially in the finale.  I liked the way the brightness and delicacy of the strings’ upper registers contrasted with the heavier underpinning of the cellos and basses, and Storgårds’ flexible approach to tempi allowed Sibelius’ structures and melodies to take flight organically.

Simon Thompson

Leave a Comment