S&H Concert review

PROM 8: James MacMillan Premiere, RAH, 26 July 2001 (MB)

The BBC Philharmonic's Prom featured, besides works by Rimsky-Korsakov and Richard Strauss, the world premiere of James MacMillan's new work, The Birds of Rhiannon.

An at times densely orchestrated, yet often thrilling work this four movement 'concerto for orchestra with mystical coda for choir' is ambitious in scope. Beginning with dark, resonant chords on low brass and strings it recalls late Shostakovich yet that is really where the parallel ends. MacMillan wistfully throws in tessitura wind and string passages which soar like birds but this liquid delicacy is beaten back by the ominous tread of a relentless bass theme which thunders, like warring tribes, sweeping the music forward inexorably. With whistling, bustling percussion, more emblematic of a post-industrialist Varèsian landscape rather than the ancient synergy of Welsh myth and mysticism, the mood of the work is as much reflective as it is post-modernist. The conclusion to the first movement - described as a 'primitive stomp' - is pure Faustian Kraut Rock with its relentless hammering of sheet metal. All that was missing was the chainsaw.

The second movement is more melancholic - yet also more allegorical. Pattering rain is heard on pizzicato violins, a folk-like theme is played out on woodwind and percussion hiss like snakes moving through the skeleton of a dry grass field. Again, there is the underlying tonic darkness which MacMillan uses to give the work momentum, this time on horns - leading to a pseudo-Mahlerian march on drums. The third movement is boisterous (violins and violas remain silenced) the soaring line taken by cellos and an altitude-breaking saxophone. I began to wonder whether MacMillan had got the balance of his orchestration right here for the cellos seemed almost inaudible, at times alarmingly so. This movement perhaps suffered the most from an over-complex orchestration where too much was going on, where the shrill woodwind lines perhaps distorted the sonorous cello theme. The final coda is a breathtakingly beautiful song sung by a choir of sixteen (The Sixteen). All of those subtle chordal themes, all of the soaring interjections were here met in the human voice.

The Birds of Rhiannon is certainly one of MacMillan's more memorable works of recent years - at turns opulent in its string sound and chaotic in its use of brass and percussion. The BBC Philharmonic, of whom MacMillan is now Composer/Conductor (succeeding Maxwell-Davies), played beautifully for him and with utter conviction.

The opening work, an utterly bland performance of Rimsky-Korsakov's usually dull Russian Easter Festival Overture did not bode well for the final work on the programme - Strauss' Ein Heldenleben. However, this turned out to be a memorable performance, often stunningly played (particularly strings who were beautifully toned through out - muscular, as well as burnished in colour) and finely conducted by Vassily Sinaisky. At almost 50 minutes the performance was long - although it did not always feel so (the Hero's Battlefield had tremendous drive, but the Hero's Works of Peace almost fragmented and collapsed under the strain of Sinaisky's tempi). If this performance had humanity, it also seemed totally Olympian in its scale (nine horns, three off-stage trumpets, augmented string sections and so on). If it recalled Celibidache and Barbirolli, rather than Karajan, this seemed Sinaisky's intention. He almost persuaded me it worked - but not quite.

Marc Bridle

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