Prom 8: 26th July 2001 – MACMILLAN PREMIERE

For Ian*
Piano Sonata*
Cumnock Fair

Simon Mulligan (piano)*,
Students from the Royal Northern College of Music; the composer in conversation with Andrew McGregor
Victoria & Albert Museum, London

Russian Easter Festival Overture
Birds of Rhiannon (BBC commission: world premiere)
Ein Heldenleben

The Sixteen, BBC Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Vassily Sinaisky and James MacMillan
Royal Albert Hall, London

Reviewed by: Steve Lomas

Reviewed: 26 July, 2001
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

A half-empty Royal Albert Hall would be a full house in most concert venues – but given a programme that looked exciting on paper, the low turnout was hard to explain, except perhaps in terms of the weather. Those who did attend were treated to a classic Proms experience.

The programme note revealed the quietly startling information that Rimsky-Korsakov’s Russian Easter Festival was receiving only its third Proms performance, which would be one performance less than James MacMillan has had world premieres there. His new work, Birds of Rhiannon, followed on from The Confession of Isobel Gowdie, Veni, Veni, Emmanuel and Quickening – a daunting line – but in the event MacMillan has produced yet another winner while at the same time extending the boundaries of his art.

Described by the composer as ’a dramatic concerto for orchestra with a mystical coda for choir’, the work was inspired by a story from the Mabinogion, the ancient Welsh myth source, concerning the early British king, Bran, (whose head may or may not be buried under the Tower of London), who sacrificed his life to end a civil war, prompting the appearance and singing of the eponymous angelic birds.

It’s a potent starting-point for a composer whose music always carries a dramatic sub-text. The work is in four movements played continuously which are arranged in the archetypal darkness-to-light vector and loosely depict a battle leading, in the last movement, to a hard-won peace signalled by the entry of the chorus. The predominant tone of the first three movements is that of an ancient battlefield stained with blood; the orchestral colours have a heraldic, emblematic quality – the vermilion of the setting-sun over a bloody landscape mixed with the argent of clashing swords, set into an escutcheon of jet-black.

Macmillan had spoken at the pre-concert ’Composer Portrait’ of the work’s “largeness” – this emerges gradually as the first movement progresses from its opening auroral gestures to a wild percussive climax. From the very first notes, a mythic soundworld is delineated, with delicate tuned percussion floating above bottomless depths. The pace quickens over the course of the movement and reel-like material comes increasingly to the fore. The climactic dance is announced by the pounding of metal sheets where Macmillan characteristically steers close to vulgarity but avoids it with the sheer self-confidence and inventiveness of his writing.

The slow second movement is formed out of a variety of nugget-like fragments rotated in kaleidoscopic fashion. Warlike calls begin to emerge in the brass and percussion; these gradually subjugate the fragments into an entity. This releases the full battle of the third movement with fanfares blazing. The climax of the work is reached as the deep chordal material of the opening returns to underpin the anguished cry of the sacrifice. After an overwhelming tutti, the chorus enter suddenly in full throttle but quickly subside into a gentle madrigalian setting of a poem by MacMillan’s regular collaborator Michael Symmons Roberts. The ’inward’ climax of the work is reached when the choral writing crystallises into a gentle modal song with simple triadic harmonies over distant troubled rumblings in the orchestra. This takes wing, sublimating the warlike material; the work ends in an ecstatic ululation. I immediately wanted to hear it again.

The BBC Philharmonic and The Sixteen played and sang magnificently under MacMillan’s cool, authoritative direction. His Proms debut, as the Orchestra’s new Composer/Conductor, could not have been more auspicious. MacMillan continues to aim for the emotional jugular but increasingly does so by more complex, less figurative means. That his aim is still as sure was proved by the audience’s response.

Three other MacMillan works were heard in the ’Composer Portrait’ event in the inspiring setting of the ’V and A’. For Ian is a short strathspey for piano modelled on the likes of Maxwell Davies’s Farewell to Stromness – the A of its ABA structure is a most beautiful tune which I have been carrying around with me ever since. The early Piano Sonata (recently refashioned into the Second Symphony) is a depiction of a wintry Ayrshire landscape, which has an attractive improvisatory feel underpinned by Messiaen-like pianism. The recent piano and strings sextet, Cumnock Fair, is a whirl of Scottish dance music subverted by slow incantatory material, which has the last word. All three works were played refreshingly. In the course of an interview between the pieces, MacMillan revealed that he and Michael Symmons Roberts are mining the Mabinogion once more for a stage work – a mouth-watering proposition.

The main concert had begun with that third Proms performance of Rimsky-Korsakov’s wayward overture, as Russian to its core as Celticism is central to MacMillan. The rapturous pentatonic solos were sweetly taken.

Following on from this and the huge effort of the MacMillan in a muggy RAH, the BBC Philharmonic could have been forgiven for a lacklustre performance of Ein Heldenleben – it was nothing of the sort. The warm, glowing tones of this orchestra are well suited to the richness of Strauss’s orchestral writing; the BBC Phil was on top from. Its collective virtuosity revealed Heldenleben in all its overstuffed glory. The brass charged into battle for the second time this evening; the woodwind were suitably acerbic in their depiction of critics (which your reviewer endured with equanimity!) and Yuri Torchinsky delivered the solo violin part with panache. The deathbed scene of the coda was most moving. The genial direction of Vassily Sinaisky drew together the many components of the work into an inspired reading.

The whole concert was a perfect example of what the Proms is all about.

  • BBC Radio 3 re-broadcast – Monday, 30 July, at 2 o’clock

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