MacMillan (The) World's Ransoming; Cello Concerto

Author: 
Arnold Whittall

MacMillan (The) World's Ransoming; Cello Concerto

  • (The) World's Ransoming
  • Concerto for Cello and Orchestra
  • Symphony, 'Vigil'

The three works on these two CDs comprise James MacMillian’s Easter triptych Triduum (1996-7). They are a believer’s response to the biblical story of Christ’s betrayal, crucifixion and resurrection, and although the insert-note writer, on MacMillan’s behalf, argues that they embody ‘contemplation’ of that story rather than ‘description’, the distinction is likely to be a very fine one for listeners whose most immediate reaction will be to identify some very graphic sound images – not least the conjunction of percussive hammering and pleading from the solo instrument at the end of the Cello Concerto.
This is Passion music at the opposite extreme from the austere choral rituals of an Arvo Part, and music far more directly engaged with the European symphonic tradition than any of Messiaen’s large-scale treatments of sacred themes. MacMillan’s style might be broadly categorized as ‘post- Shostakovich’, the kind of music Penderecki might be writing had he continued along the lines of his St Luke Passion. MacMillan does not shy away from the melodramatic, building his extended structures around tensions that, at their most powerful, bring very different types of music into opposition – resplendently harmonized plainchant and fervent lyricism, for example. There are places in all three of these compositions where MacMillan seems to me to run the risk of making his quotations or parodies of chants and chorales rather more memorable than the more personal material alongside them, and I think that you need to be in tune with his spiritual objectives and convictions to appreciate fully the musical processes at work. If you are, then this Easter triptych is undoubtedly an absorbing as well as an ambitious enterprise.
The World’s Ransoming is a single-movement concert piece for cor anglais and orchestra, its prevailing tone of meditative lament moving beyond the purely liturgical associations of an extended chant line towards a musical drama in which the lament is subject to bombastic assaults from generically opposed materials. The BIS recording of this is excellent in the way the solo line, played with exemplary control and sensitivity by Christine Pendrill, survives the batterings aimed at it by the spacious orchestral textures. In the Cello Concerto, which continues the drama of conflict between a suffering individual and an oppressive society on a much larger scale, Raphael Wallfisch has a harder time in asserting a suitably charismatic presence, and might have benefited from a slightly more forward placement. As it is, MacMillian’s imaginative orchestral writing threatens to get the best of the purely musical argument: yet it is still difficult not to be moved by the sense of a struggling protagonist, condemned and tortured. The point might be more effectively conveyed in music of greater formal economy (as in MacMillan’s much admired Ustvolskaya) but the composer’s very direct and uninhibited expressionism shows his determination not to downplay either the portentousness or the horror of what the music contemplates.
The 48-minute Symphony which completes the triptych sets itself the task of moving from images of suffering and death to those of rebirth and transcendent affirmation. Its structure, with two preliminary movements lasting around 22 minutes and a grand finale running for 26, led me to wonder whether the last movement on its own might not have performed the formal and expressive task required. Certainly it contains enough diversity, with elements of Dionysian celebration and solemn, aspiring ceremonial before a protracted, turbulent crisis dissolves into the sweet soulfulness of the ending. Or you could argue that all three movements are needed to provide an adequate balance to The World’s Ransoming and the Cello Concerto together. Any early verdict on a work as substantial and wide-ranging as this is bound to be provisional. What can be declared without any reservation is that BIS deserves full credit for recording it so promptly and so well, while the confidence and command of Osmo Vanska and the BBC Scottish SO are of an order to put any composer deeply and permanently in their debt.'

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