Darkness into Light: The Music of James MacMillan – Chamber & Theatre

St Giles, Cripplegate
Cello Sonata No.1
Piano Sonata
Kiss On Wood
Fourteen Little Pieces
Stille Musik
Piano Sonata No.2

Gould Piano Trio
[Lucy Gould (violin), Alice Neary (cello) & Benjamin Frith (piano)]

Music Hall, Guildhall School of Music & Drama
A Deep but Dazzling Darkness

So-Ock Kim (violin)

Mariah Gale (speaker – Anna, a grown-up clone child)
Ruth Kerr (soprano – Kristel, mother of Anna)
Giles Underwood (baritone – Bruno, an angel)

Guidhall New Music Ensemble
Nicholas Kok


Reviewed by: Hayden Jones

Reviewed: 16 January, 2005
Venue: St Giles Cripplegate & Music Hall, Guildhall School of Music & Drama, London

Sunday afternoon’s concerts, part of “From Darkness to Light – The Music of James MacMillan” would have been more appropriately titled as ‘From the Sublime to the Ridiculous’: It was an afternoon of gripping music and highly-charged performances that culminated in the questionable dramatic scena, Parthenogenesis.

The small church of St Giles Cripplegate was an ideal setting for “Little Pictures”: chamber music of MacMillan, Schnittke and Ustvolskaya. The reverberant acoustic provided the Gould Piano Trio with an ambient sound-stage for these mesmerising works. MacMillan’s Cello Sonata No.1 was written in 1999 and premiered by Raphael Wallfisch and John York the same year. MacMillan has spoken about the ability of music to “reach into the crevices of your soul”, something that this dramatic and powerful piece certainly achieves. The first movement ‘Face’ is at first dark and lyrical with long expressive lines that later builds to seismic climaxes all the while pushing the instruments to their limits of expression: The cellist using pizzicatos, glissandos and percussive use of the bow; the pianist hammering the bass notes to create a loud, violent and brutal backdrop for the cello to convulse over. The second movement ‘Image’ is as the title suggests, a mirror image of the first, presenting retrograde versions of thematic ideas recalled from ‘Face’. The performers Alice Neary and Benjamin Frith gave a gripping and totally convincing performance. Neary’s intense musicality and warm, languid tone were given full rein in this at times haunting, gentle and violent piece. Benjamin Frith’s pianistic sensitivity gave us a tantalising glimpse of what was to come.

The programming of this concert was designed not only as a showcase for MacMillan’s chamber works but also as an opportunity for us to hear pieces by composers that he admires. Schnittke’s Stille Musik, for violin and cello, was composed in 1979 in memory of the musicologist Mikhail Druskin. This extremely slow, almost ‘neo-romantic’ music requires total concentration to sustain the hushed, microtonal intensity of Schnittke’s vision. Unfortunately Lucy Gould’s violin technique was no match for the music. Her sometimes-shaky intonation and bumpy legato seemed out of step with Alice Neary’s engaging musicality. Quibbles aside, it was an engrossing performance nonetheless.

Benjamin Frith returned for the recital’s highlights: MacMillan’s Piano Sonata (1985) and Ustvolskaya’s Piano Sonata No.2 (1949). MacMillan’s desolate expression comes to the fore in the sonata. It was composed during a bitter Ayrshire winter and was influenced by the barren trees and frozen, empty landscape of his home. The mournful first movement with its dense, almost jazz-like chords accompanied by sparse melody created a vivid picture of any icy wasteland. Frith’s utterly musical playing, enhanced by St Giles’s sonic ambience was a feast for the senses, conveying the desolate isolation at the very heart of the piece. The volatile second movement’s difficulties were brushed aside with ease as Frith drew us convincingly towards the bleak yet eloquently lyrical third and final movement.

Galina Ustvolskaya believes that her music speaks more clearly when performed in religious surroundings and Benjamin Frith’s performance certainly gave us an indication as to why. The second of her six piano sonatas is arguably one of the more accessible of her works but remains just as challenging. This austere, fractured music starts quietly but gains strength during the course of the short first movement, only to die away towards the end. The eerie chant-like nature of this abrasive music continues into the second movement: the relentless throbbing, pulsing chords create a feeling of anguish and despair. Benjamin Frith gave a highly individual and totally committed reading, playing with a rubato that heightened the sonata’s searing white-heat: slow-moving crotchet chords that could easily be played without any expressive nuances were performed with the utmost intensity, but never over-blown or self-conscious. Frith (who admitted to MacMIllan that he had never heard any of Ustvolskaya’s works prior to this engagement) was totally immersed in the Sonata’s prayer-like reticence.

Kiss on Wood, or violin and piano, is a moving meditation on a Good Friday plainchant antiphon. Frith was central to the performance’s success with his ever sensitive-playing; Gould was disappointing with her uncultured violin tone – not at all emotive or endearing as it should be in this melancholic music.

The final work, Fourteen Little Pictures, gave the performers their first opportunity to play together as a trio. The piece was composed in 1997 to a commission from the BBC to mark the 25th-anniversary of the collaboration of Peter Frankl, György Pauk and Ralph Kirshbaum. Fourteen miniatures are bound together as a unified composition. MacMillan makes good use of differing musical styles and instrumental combinations to create sections that convey desolation, anxiety, violence and rage. The Gould Trio gave a committed and intense performance, save that Lucy Gould was once again no match for her musical partners.

A couple of hours later we were at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. A Deep but Dazzling Darkness, for violin, ensemble and tape takes its inspiration from “The Night”, a poem by the 17th-century Welsh metaphysical poet Henry Vaughan. In it he ponders “the ambiguity, mystery and otherness of the nature of the Divine”, explains MacMillan “and the music experiments”. As well as a chamber orchestra of strings, wind and brass, the piece deploys two pianos (one tuned a quarter-tone above normal pitch), a large percussion section, and a pre-recorded tape of whispers, moans and groans.

The piece starts with these ghostly voices and the violin and contrabassoon emerge and exchange rapid dialogue. The piece then takes flight with an exciting mix of tonal and atonal elements. The virtuoso violin part was brilliantly played by Guildhall postgraduate So-Ock Kim; her total command of the violin was astounding: playing on a Stradivarius, intonation and pitch where crystal-clear with a warm, well rounded sound, and a dazzling technique made for some jaw-dropping violin wizardry! The concerto moved through varying moods with the pre-recorded voices coming in and out of focus, the eerie pianos creating an uneasy distraction and the eclectic array of percussion adding to the concerto’s unique combination of sounds. The Guildhall New Music Ensemble turned in a strong performance, rising to the challenge of the soloist. The piece ended with the solo violin low on the G string, retreating quietly with the final instruction “loosen tuning peg as sound slides and fades to nothing”.

Parthenogenesis is an unusual work composed in collaboration with librettist Michael Symmons Roberts and Archbishop (of Canterbury), Rowan Williams. The inspiration for the piece comes from a true story unearthed by Symmons Roberts concerning a young woman caught on the streets of Hanover during an allied bombing raid in 1944. The woman, who knew that she had not had sex, later gives birth to a daughter with identical fingerprints, blood type and other indicators to herself. Baffled doctors could only hypothesise that the shock of the bombing raid must have jarred a dormant cell in the woman’s womb into parthenogenesis: non-sexual (fatherless) reproduction. MacMillan, a devout Roman Catholic, inevitably draws parallels with this story and that of the Virgin Mary (though any offspring from divided cells is always female).

The story centres around three characters: Kristel, the mother; Anna, the unborn clone-child; and Bruno, an angel with clipped wings who is in love with Kristel and yearns for human existence. As a purely musical piece Parthenogenesis would be a fascinating and effective composition. But as it stands, shackled to its ludicrously banal libretto, the piece remains questionable in its validity and grounded by its deadpan storyline. However, the vocal performances were exemplary: Giles Underwood, a formidable lyric baritone; Ruth Kerr, a soprano who easily rose to the challenges set by MacMillan; and Mariah Gale whose spoken part was an exercise in sullen detachment. But even these performers together with the Guildhall New Music Ensemble couldn’t be expected to rise above the mediocrity of the piece as a whole.

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