Prom 14: MacRae Premiere

Overture – Le corsaire
Stuart MacRae
Violin Concerto [Richard Gregson-Williams Memorial Trust commission: world premiere]
Les illuminations
Also sprach Zarathustra

Tasmin Little (violin)

Inger Dam-Jensen (soprano)

BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra
Martyn Brabbins

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 31 July, 2001
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

At 28 minutes, Stuart MacRae’s Violin Concerto is a substantial and intriguing addition to what has proved a diverse genre over the last decade. MacRae’s is not so much an ’anti-concerto’, rather it’s one which, with its subtle and generally restrained orchestration and a formal and emotional emphasis placed firmly on the final movement, is written very much against the Romantic archetype.

MacRae’s inventive use of percussion is evident in the Lutoslawskian rhythmic gestures of side drum and cymbal in the preludial ’Giusto’, and in the use of bass drum to underpin the spare textures of the ’Largo e mesto’. From a low wind cluster, this proceeds with a discrete gravity recalling late Stravinsky, the soloist focusing on self-contained melodic arcs that avoid sustained continuity.

A brief ’Animoso’ absorbs the violin into a chamber-like discourse which dissolves in almost pointillist textures, before the ’Malinconico’ achieves a cumulative impact. This emerges through finely-judged polyrhythmic interplay, at the apex of which expressive brass gestures hint at a catharsis distantly recalling that of Berg’s concerto. In the overall spirit of MacRae’s work, the soloist retreats musingly into silence.

Tasmin Little had clearly mastered the fragile yet intense solo writing, her lightness of tone in keeping with the reticent nature of the music itself. Martyn Brabbins was in firm control of the orchestral contribution, with the frequent solos confidently taken. A work which, while it clearly provoked an ambivalent response in the audience, confirmed MacRae as a thoughtful and engaging compositional voice.

Berlioz’s Le Corsaire overture, an effervescent encapsulation of idiom, was hardly an appropriate entrée. After the interval, Inger Dam-Jensen’s account of Les illuminations was most potently characterised in the reflective songs – a poised ’Antique’, an effortlessly floated ’Being Beauteous’, a poignant ’Départ’. Elsewhere, not least in ’Villes’ and ’Parade’, with its climactic statement of the opening lines, her interpretation, while incisive, under-projected the imagery of Rimbaud’s fervid imagination. It was good though to hear this work taken by a soprano (Britten’s original choice), the vocal line far more effective as a contrast in timbre with the strings.

Also sprach Zarathustra was an inevitable presence in this 2001 season. After a surprisingly staid ’Sunrise’, Brabbins secured a decent if hardly memorable performance, the organ contribution at times elevated almost to ’concerto’ status. The less than close-knit, but never sprawling Nietzschean canvas emerged episodically, though the fugal ’Of Science’ was impressively sustained, and Elizabeth Layton injected welcome impetuosity into the ’Dance Song’. The nocturnal coda passed by self-effacingly – with, as so often in Strauss, indulgence and transcendence knowingly conflated.

  • BBC Radio 3 re-broadcast on Monday, 6 August, at 2 o’clock

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