The Confession of Isobel Gowdie
Colin Currie (percussion)
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Recorded at Southbank Centre, London – MacMillan and Adès in Queen Elizabeth Hall on 30 January 2006; Higdon in Royal Festival Hall on 15 December 2007
Reviewed by: Glyn Môn Hughes
Reviewed: February 2009
CD No: LPO – 0035
Duration: 60 minutes
In many ways, it could be said that James MacMillan is the Benjamin Britten of his generation. His works often push the boundaries, they are based on heartfelt personal convictions, and they are approachable and often prove highly popular.
So it is with The Confession of Isobel Gowdie. It was a BBC commission first performed at the Proms in 1990 and, unlike so many similar pieces, it has been performed relatively frequently since its premiere, usually with great success.
The piece is inspired by the alleged persecution and execution of several witches in Scotland between 1560 and 1707 and depicts musically the case of Isobel Gowdie from Nairn who was strangled and burnt at the stake in 1662. MacMillan’s Roman Catholic faith and Scots heritage co-mingle in this piece which draws on, amongst other things, the ‘Lux Aeterna’ from the Roman Catholic Requiem Mass as well as the Scottish ballad “The Cruel Mother”.
As with many other works by this composer, he employs a large orchestra to great effect. The opening of the piece is a mysterious build-up, plainchant and folk-music rubbing shoulders, beginning on lower woodwinds and horns and spreading through the strings. This tonal polyphony, showing considerable breadth and depth of thought, which seems to be endlessly questioning, is highly reminiscent of Michael Tippett’s music.
At the end of this long, sustained episode, the brass enters, horns and trumpets leading the piece through a fabulous crescendo only to be dissipated with a somewhat violent tutti which abruptly subsides to a quiet, contemplative section recalling much of the material of the opening.
Throughout the work these tonal sections are punctuated with interjections of fury, making for a graphic picture of the subject of the title. The achingly beautiful, and quiet, ending closes the work on a single note, though even here, there is an electrifying tension.
Thomas Adès’s Chamber Symphony is a single movement piece divided into four sections. Written in the same year as the MacMillan, the work could scarcely be more different. It is written for 15 solo instruments, Adès exploring the textures and possibilities of each one thoroughly. And, while MacMillan refers to his influences extensively, Adès only fleetingly alludes to jazz and tango as part of his compositional palette.
From the restrained, even gentle, opening, Adès builds the first movement on a small, fragmentary motif. His use of instruments at the very outer reaches of their ranges makes for an added dimension, though this recording gives particular light and clarity to each individual line. Through the total repose of the second movement, through the fast, fluttering flutes and other woodwinds in the third movement, the piece comes to a gentle conclusion, almost dying away, all energy spent.
Energy, though, is the trademark of Jennifer Higdon’s Percussion Concerto, written in 2005. Colin Currie has his work cut out: the demands on him are big. In many ways, it would be good to see this piece performed – pitched percussion (marimba, vibraphone and crotales) – are arrayed on one side of the conductor while the non-pitched instruments – such as bongos, a resonating bowl and a small Peking Opera gong – are on the other.
Interestingly, at times, the orchestral percussion joins forces with the soloist to pitch themselves against the orchestra. The slow introduction is for percussion alone with some dynamic moments of antiphony, soloist chattering along with those playing orchestral percussion. Once the orchestra joins in, there’s an utterly fascinating conversation that is rhythmically complex and yet accessible, with the brass singled out for particular acclaim. While the strings felt just a little under-powered towards the end, there’s no doubt that the slow crescendo towards the cataclysmic conclusion is something to be heard and admired.