A Scotch Bestiary

The Nightingale [concert performance; sung in Russian]
A Scotch Bestiary [BBC/Los Angeles Philharmonic co-commission: London premiere]
La valse – poème choreographique

Nightingale – Olga Trifonova
Fisherman – Evgeny Akimov
Kitchenmaid – Ailish Tynan
Emperor – Sergei Leiferkus
Chamberlain – Darren Jeffery
Bonze – Daniel Borowski
Death – Irina Tchistyakova
Japanese envoys – Christopher Bowen, John Bowley & Stephen Charlesworth

BBC Singers

Wayne Marshall (organ)

BBC Philharmonic
Gianandrea Noseda
James MacMillan

Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 21 July, 2005
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

A curious concert, following another unsettling day for Londoners, which perhaps explained a smaller than expected audience in the Royal Albert Hall. The programming was curious too – in effect back-to-front, with the longest work coming first; then – after the interval – the concerto and a short orchestral piece.

Stravinsky’s ‘interrupted’ opera “The Nightingale” (Stravinsky broke off to compose Firebird, Petrushka and The Rite of Spring) found the BBC Philharmonic responding to chief conductor Gianandrea Noseda’s long-reaching beat (the sleeves of his black tunic pulling back up his arms to accentuate their reach and the length of his hands and fingers) – he definitely had the work under his fingers – and the cast was top-notch, headed by Sergei Leiferkus’s ever-majestic baritone in the part of the Emperor and Olga Trifonova as a deliciously voiced Nightingale.

Nor was there any doubt about Stravinsky’s Andersen-based opera’s rightful inclusion within the fairytale theme of the Proms, and it made some sense – given the titular star of that opera – that a zoological stable-mate was found to balance the programme. Quite why La valse was there was more difficult to ascertain. Noseda was back for the Ravel, and certainly whipped up quite lather, so he was in a pool of sweat by the end … and one advantage of rear-stalls seats is that you can’t hear Noseda huffing and puffing, a tactic he seems to have learnt from his one-time mentor, Valery Gergiev.

James MacMillan is a much more economical conductor than Noseda. A Scotch Bestiary is an organ concerto – the solo part magnificently taken by Wayne Marshall – with an extraordinary subtitle: “enigmatic variations on a zoological carnival at a Caledonian exhibition”.

MacMillan himself says he found inspiration in Elgar’s Enigma Variations, Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition and Saint-Saëns’s Carnival of the Animals, and he provided a useful note to follow the various beasties which are portrayed sequentially in the first of the two movements (The menagerie: caged), while the second sees them let loose (The menagerie: uncaged). Connecting his cages of animals is a Mussorgskian-like promenade which returns in various guises, but his animals take on a rather scurrilous aspect.

MacMillan also took inspiration from American cartoon characters (not surprisingly as the work was premièred in the LA Philharmonic’s new Walt Disney Hall) and it was clear that satire to a greater or lesser extent was at work in some of the more unusual exhibits in the collection – after the Cro-Magnon hyena, reptiles and a big fish (in a small pond), Queen Bee (described as her serene and ubiquitous majesty), howler monkeys and uncle tom cat and his chickens, there were the curiosities such as Scottish patriots (making use of a discarded fanfare for the opening of the Scottish Parliament), the Reverend Cuckoo and his parroting chorus and, finally, Jackass Hackass – complete with two typewriters click-clacking away.

There seems to be something here aimed at his homeland, given MacMillan’s outspoken views and the sniffy reaction in both the Scottish parliament and the press, but even if the work’s genesis has the whiff of satirical revenge-taking, there is no doubt it has allowed MacMillan to create one of his most unpredictable and enjoyably wacky pieces. If I suggest that MacMillan’s depiction of the clamorous howler monkeys was Ivesian to a tee, and that the Jackass Hackass section took more than the idea of typewriter usage from Leroy Anderson, I think you will get the picture. Indeed, MacMillan seems to have got just as much inspiration from the music that accompanied the classic Hollywood cartoons, even though this is not explicitly listed in his note.

And as to the organ part – crashing chords or dextrous running passages that really did sound like buzzing bees – Wayne Marshall was master of all. I was rather doubtful for the first few page-turnings (MacMillan actually sees his menagerie in book form), but was quickly won round. Given the Hall’s mighty organ and MacMillan’s expanded orchestra, the acoustic gauze I had felt distancing me from the Stravinsky was lifted, and what had gone before was quite literally bludgeoned from my mind.

In the second movement, all themes and more (how could he have forgotten elephants, more birds, dogs, cows, horses and lions in the first movement?) are crashed headlong together in biological improvisation; and the Royal Albert Hall came into its own in being able to cope with all that was thrown at it!

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