Britten Sinfonia MacMillan

Prelude and Fugue, Op.29
Piano Concerto No.2
Cantus in memoriam Benjamin Britten
Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste

Joanna MacGregor (piano)

Britten Sinfonia
James MacMillan

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 8 November, 2004
Venue: Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

For inclusive and innovative programming there can be few chamber orchestras to touch the Britten Sinfonia, and this concert demonstrated its strength in depth with three string-based classics, together with a new work by a regular collaborators – James MacMillan.

His Second Piano Concerto (2004) has had an unusual genesis – originating in a fantasy for strings, Cumnock Fair, that was taken up by New York City Ballet. On the urging of choreographer Christopher Wheeldon, MacMillan added two further sections, creating a broadly fast-slow-fast succession which – with its concertante role for piano – effectively adds up to a concerto. And, as with other of this composer’s large-scale pieces, various precedents are perceptibly at work – not least Schnittke in the constant cross-cutting between material of widely-varied content and expression, not to mention the way in which piano often seems to merge into, only to burst out of, amorphously-shaded string textures (the Russian’s Concerto for Piano and Strings providing a direct model in this respect).

The progress of ‘Cumnock Fair’ is of an increasingly febrile medley of dance tunes where the initially boisterous mood becomes brutalised and hectoring. The central ‘Shambards’ movement promises something more consoling, if elegiac, that is in turn undermined by more aggressive ideas – then a rhetorical motif for piano presages the ‘Shamnation’ finale, a sort of reel-fantasy in which the ever-more vicious interplay of soloist and strings is curtailed by a frenzied cadenza, before the final collapse into a seemingly expressive void. All of which suggests a powerful, unsettling listen – which it would be had MacMillan exercised his stock of emotional clichés with greater imaginative resource. Instead, what is likely visceral and engrossing when choreographed feels disconcertingly threadbare when listened to as music. Joanna MacGregor played with her usual combination of discipline and abandon, clearly relishing her opportunity to become a tabor player in the finale: what a pity she was not given something intrinsically more worthwhile on which to focus her commitment.

As part of his conducting activities with the BBC Philharmonic, MacMillan has been building a varied portfolio of works across the classical spectrum. He opened this concert with an account of Britten’s Prelude and Fugue that was soundly paced, if a little lacking in cumulative intensity as the Fugue’s contrapuntal strands merge into their soulful apotheosis. Arvo Pärt’s indelible Cantus exerted much of its mesmeric force, though a larger number of strings – particularly cellos and basses – is needed for the final descent to the tonic chord to achieve its full gravitas.

One could say much the same about Bartók’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste – though, as an interpretation, this had much to commend it. MacMillan paced the slower movements so that their spatially-unfolding polyphony was never at the expense of an underlying momentum, while the even-numbered ones had the exuberance characteristic of mature Bartók. Only in the second movement’s coda did MacMillan seem unsure of how to channel the subtle intermingling of chromatic and diatonic elements towards a decisive conclusion: otherwise – with sterling contributions from such ‘extras’ as pianist Huw Watkins and timpanist Charles Fulbrook – this was a confident performance, emphasising the rigour of Bartók’s masterpiece with no inhibitionor self-consciousness. Would that one could say the same of MacMillan’s own music on this occasion.

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