Prom 9 – MacMillan’s Silence

MacMillan
Symphony No.3 (Silence) [BBC/NHK co-commission: European premiere] *
Strauss
Four Last Songs
Beethoven
Symphony No.5 in C minor, Op.67

Barbara Frittoli (soprano)

BBC Philharmonic
James MacMillan *
Gianandrea Noseda


Reviewed by: Steve Lomas

Reviewed: 24 July, 2003
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Although James Macmillan is already Composer/Conductor to the BBC Philharmonic, he could without too much exaggeration carry that title with regard to the BBC Proms. Since the sensational premiere of The Confession of Isobel Gowdie in the 1990 season, there has been a steady flow of major commissions and premieres, as well as ’repertory’ performances. Proms audiences and MacMillan’s music, it seems, are designed for each other – musically intelligent, emotionally and spiritually direct, alternately noisy and rapt in awe-struck contemplation (and that’s just the audience).

This Prom brought with it the first European performance of MacMillan’s 35-minute Third Symphony following its premiere in Japan under Charles Dutoit (it’s a joint commission from the NHK Symphony Orchestra and BBC) and for a change one had the feeling that a substantial portion of the large audience had been drawn by the new work at least as much as by the rest of the programme.

The symphony is subtitled ’Silence’, which alludes to the novel of the same name by the Japanese Catholic writer Shusaku Endo where it refers to the apparent indifference of God in the face of man’s inhumanity to man. To a non-believer, this of course is all too evidently explained by the non-existence of a divine creator, but for Endo and MacMillan it resonates with the idea of an active and positive silence. From this concept, MacMillan extrapolates an arch-like structure in which the music emerges from and ultimately recedes back into a void of silence – the symphony begins and ends with a silent bar. Silence also pervades the work in the form of numerous fermata which interrupt the flow of the music, often at unexpected moments and most powerfully in the middle of the central climax (although none of these has the impact of the extraordinary ’hole’ in the centre of Stockhausen’s Trans).

MacMillan informed us at his pre-Prom talk that under the terms of the commission he had been offered the possibility of augmenting the conventional orchestral forces with traditional Japanese instruments but that he had declined this, fearing it would lead to a kind of dilettante exoticism. Instead, he re-imagined the sounds of Japanese instruments using Western timbres. Thus, near the beginning and in its corresponding palindromic position, the sound of the shakuhachi (bamboo flute) was evoked by a combination of three flutes using unconventional playing techniques coupled in a kind of ’Korean unison’ with marimba and two cellos playing harmonics. The contours of the melodic lines are also highly suggestive of a Japanese or at least Eastern modality, even though the consanguinity of traditional musics was highlighted when these shapes seem to morph into Gaelic psalm-singing.

Indeed the colours and shapes of the orchestral writing constituted the most appealing element of the work. Macmillan’s trademark orchestral brilliance was everywhere to be heard – glittering percussion, a gurgling contra-bass clarinet, a tentative brass chorale, rich Tippettian horns (actually an allusion to the opening of Wagner’s Das Rheingold) and much more. What struck me as less successful was the form of the piece. Although its trajectory seemed clear on paper – a structure not unlike that of Tippett’s The Rose Lake – on a first hearing the direction of the music was not always clear and there appeared to be too many moments when it was hard to tell whether we were on the main journey or a detour.

Additionally, the passage toward the end which MacMillan calls ’The Swamp’ did not register as especially, well, swamp-like, nor was the composer’s image of a rebirth growing out of stagnation particularly audible in the actual music at this point. The shakuhachi music does reappear in a more affecting state but this moment carried unusually little emotional resonance by MacMillan standards. Maybe I criticise the work for failing to do something it did not set out to do. Repeated hearings might clarify the formal structure, but impressions are that this is not top-drawer MacMillan despite many surface attractions.

The performance was authoritative and articulate and the BBC Philharmonic was typically fluent and responsive (the woodwind were on particularly sparkling form) but I found myself wondering how the piece might have sounded under the direction of Gianandrea Noseda who conducted the rest of the concert. It had been announced earlier in the week that his tenure as Principal Conductor of the BBCPO, not yet one year old, has already been extended for a further three years beyond its original term. The performance of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony amply demonstrated why. It is a commonplace of music criticism to say that a particularly inspired reading breathed new life into something over-familiar warhorse – nevertheless, here was that reading.

Expecting a plush and well-upholstered performance in this orchestra’s house style, I was wrong-footed within the first few bars. Noseda seems to have re-invented the BBCPO’s sound and instead gave us an interpretation that seemed to be the most fruitful result in what might be called ’modern period performance’. Taking the first movement at a fair lick, he had the orchestra deliver the music in an irresistibly lithe and energetic style, a kind of musical ’sur les pointes’. The forward propulsion was so total that the solo oboe’s forlorn pleading for respite near the end was quietly devastating.

The slow movement continued the performance style with an unforced melodic unfolding and an abrupt no-nonsense ending. The Scherzo was a joy, playful and chamber-like and the transition to the finale was brilliantly controlled, while the finale itself was a single burst of joyous sinewy energy. For once, the work seemed its true (rather short) length. It is not the only way with Beethoven, of course, but on its own terms this was something special.

Before the interval, Barbara Frittoli made her Proms debut in Strauss’s Four Last Songs. I found the combination of a substantial MacMillan premiere followed by the Strauss to be as indigestible in practice as it had looked on paper. Here were two works that had absolutely nothing to say to each other. (The pairing of the same Strauss work with the world premiere of James Dillon’s ignis noster in the 1992 season was even more intractable.) It may be that this coloured my response, but for all that Frittoli’s silvery tones were close to the paradigm of the ’Straussian soprano’, I found her performance curiously uninvolving, at least until the last song, which rarely fails. Alas, the notion of an active and positive silence was lost on a section of the audience who – most irritating of Proms traditions! – burst into applause even as Strauss’s magical final chord was still fading away.

  • Radio 3 re-broadcast on Tuesday 29 July at 2 p.m.
  • BBC Proms

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