The World’s Ransoming
The Seas of Kirk Swarf [London premiere]
Symphony No.7 in C, Op.105
Helen Scarbrough (cor anglais)
Thomas Lessels (bass clarinet)
City Side Sinfonia
Reviewed by: Colin Anderson
Reviewed: 10 January, 2008
Venue: St John's, Smith Square, London
This ambitious programme was framed by two of Sibelius’s masterworks. Tapiola began in too temperate a fashion, but silences were potent, the strings – partly due to less personnel than is usual – sounding unusually (and ear-catchingly) plaintive. Ominous clouds did gather, however, and the performance gained entry to the ‘twilight zone’, Steven Joyce – all of his gestures serving the music and the needs of his players – underlining the ‘fantasia’ aspects of Tapiola rather than the ‘symphonic’ ones. Woodwinds and brass were impressive, both in character and togetherness – the strings, while hard-working, did not always agree on unity or tuning. Joyce led a spacious account (nearly 20 minutes) but one imbued with climactic surety if not the ultimate in tempestuousness or final radiance.
It was though an absorbing realisation, as was the Seventh Symphony, an account that confirmed the excellence of winds and brass – not least Richard Watkin’s noble trombone solos – and if the strings’ internal correlation was not as exacting, there was a gratifying ‘pure beauty’ to Sibelius’s polyphony emanating from what here were solo lines. Joyce’s largesse with this concentrated work was gratefully heard and if there was a lack of tension at times there was also a gathering sense of culmination that was satisfyingly delivered.
The World’s Ransoming (1996) – the first part of ‘Easter Triduum’ (which includes MacMillan’s Cello Concerto and Symphony: Vigil) – is one of James MacMillan’s stronger works. While there is a strong emotional core to his work, there is also a suspicion of throwing too much in, almost as a distraction. Only a few days ago in London the composer conducted the National Youth Orchestra in Vigil and LSO Live has just issued The World’s Ransoming (conducted by Colin Davis) – both reviewed on Classical Source – so this account of The World’s Ransoming came at a time of concentrated exposure for the composer. While questioning if Helen Scarbrough should have assumed a soloist’s position, standing at the front of the platform – my understanding is that the songful lament and increasing agitation of the cor anglais should be heard from within the orchestra – she was certainly a sensitive advocate with the orchestra committed and attuned to MacMillan’s particular brand of mixing plainsong, chorale and violent catharsis.
Peter Maxwell Davies’s familiar ‘gestures’ are also prominently displayed in The Seas of Kirk Swarf, for bass clarinet and strings. First heard during last year’s St Magnus Festival, this second performance made a big impression, the seated Thomas Lessels (there is no other choice given the curvaceous length of this particular instrument) producing sepulchral tones amidst the star-encrusted, vigorous and expressive writing for strings. Whether dancing with diaphanous textures or setting up tension, the strings are the catalyst to the dramatic sea-based narrative to which the soloist’s envoi is a slow Scottish folk-tune, fully and ‘natively’ stated – to haunting effect. The score advises an 11-minute time-span; this performance took 15 and was convincing. Certainly the keenly listening composer seemed delighted.