Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra/James MacMillan at The Anvil, Basingstoke [The Sacrifice … Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis … The Confession of Isobel Gowdie … Lawrence Power plays Walton]

The Sacrifice – Three Interludes
Viola Concerto [Revised Version]
Vaughan Williams
Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis
The Confession of Isobel Gowdie

Lawrence Power (viola)

Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra
James MacMillan

Reviewed by: Andrew Morris

Reviewed: 24 March, 2011
Venue: The Anvil, Basingstoke

James MacmillanLondon won’t hear this enticing programme from James MacMillan and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, capped by an outstanding performance of MacMillan’s own breakthrough work, The Confession of Isobel Gowdie, and more’s the pity. Instead, one of our leading composers performed in the acoustic nirvana of The Anvil in Basingstoke before an embarrassingly small audience of barely five-hundred; a meagre showing of support that seemed an indictment of the narrow-minded conservatism of a provincial audience deserting an art-form that, along with so many, badly needs friends in increasingly difficult times.

What those who chose to stay away missed was a coherent and often thrilling programme of British orchestral milestones, three of which helped push the names of their composers into the popular consciousness. Lawrence Power’s rich tone made the most of the autumnal lyricism of William Walton’s Viola Concerto, from1929, but heard here in the revision of 1961, with reduced woodwinds but with added harp. Power emphasised the work’s romanticism with generous and wide vibrato and unfailing generosity of spirit, though he also brought the dancing rhythms of the second movement into focus: leaning on certain notes with a clear vibrato-less bite, he brought skipping shape to its jolting motifs. Best of all was the long finale, which found Power at his most colourfully inventive. At times he pressed sound from the instrument with a mixture of warmth and rawness; his way with the work’s equivocal conclusion blended regretful longing and something more hopeful, and was captivating. Supporting him ably, the Bournemouth SO was strongest in the outer movements’ lyrical outpourings but moments of uncertain ensemble in the central scherzo precluded the last degree of rhythmic incisiveness.

Raggedness marred the introduction to Ralph Vaughan Williams’s Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis and was felt in a degree of hesitancy throughout its duration, though the vagaries of MacMillan’s beat played the greatest part in the lapses of ensemble. With a beautifully blended tone, the BSO’s strings were responsive to Vaughan Williams’s wide-ranging dynamics and to the constantly shifting scale of the ensemble, but what they missed in MacMillan was a conductor capable of realising the awesome cumulative power of this work, and the clarity of direction to help them move as one.

Naturally, MacMillan was more comfortable in the two works of his own. His short suite of interludes from his 2007 opera “The Sacrifice” have been expanded slightly to give them coherence and these bursts of angry and stark violence convey the age-old themes of Macmillan’s second opera effectively. The narrative of “The Sacrifice” would seem to echo the clan war element of “Romeo and Juliet”, with an unfixed setting most likely to be a tribal past or a post apocalyptic future with a population riven by division. The three movements – ‘The Parting’, ‘Passacaglia’ and ‘The Investiture’ – range from evoking depressed isolation to juddering violent scenes. The latter is particularly true of the final interlude, which begins with a frantic toccata and ends with the murder of a young boy, though this movement strays most obviously towards the moment of sacrifice which concludes Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring; it seems odd to emulate this celebrated moment of musical violence quite so closely. Otherwise, the impression is of extracts that might more fairly be judged within the context of the original opera.

Finally, MacMillan’s deeply moving portrayal of the final anguish of a seventeenth-century Scottish woman tried and executed for witchcraft displayed the best of this composer’s preoccupation with faith and humanity. The Confession of Isobel Gowdie walks a delicate line between programmatic description and something more abstract. Gowdie’s earthly suffering is piercingly depicted in music of unflinching violence, but surrounding it is invention of otherworldly radiance and calm, suggesting a release in death and an untouchable serenity beyond earthly suffering. MacMillan’s stuttering description of the self-righteous zealotry of the inquisitors is vividly conveyed by hectoring and viciously jabbing assaults from a battery of percussion allied with the most penetrating of wind and brass textures. Like Michael Reeves’s seminal 1968 historical horror film, “Witchfinder General”, MacMillan spares nothing in depicting the stomach-churning torture exacted upon the innocent woman (and thousands like her), but unlike Reeves’s film, which ultimately concludes with the moral corruption of the abused, MacMillan’s shattering conclusion, bringing the entire orchestra together in an enormous crescendoing C, reminds us of humanity’s occasional ability to transcend such horrendous episodes. In the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, MacMillan had a group of musicians totally willing to find the extremes of darkness and light in his overwhelming vision of the best and worst of humanity.

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