MacMillan Veni, Veni Emmanuel & Other Percussion Works

Author: 
Edward Greenfield

MacMillan Veni, Veni Emmanuel & Other Percussion Works

  • Veni, veni, Emmanuel
  • After the tryst
  • ....as others see us...
  • (3) Dawn Rituals
  • Untold

Twice over at the Proms James Macmillan has had wild successes with long and demanding works, first in 1990 with The Confession of Isobel Gowdie (recorded by Jerzy Maksymiuk and the SCO for Koch Schwann 10/92) and last year with Veni, veni, Emmanuel, the major work recorded here. They were both exciting occasions for instantly revealing the composer's rare gift of communicating with electric intensity to a wider audience, rare in new music today. The composer's dedication, strongly motivated by his devout Catholicism and his equally passionate Left-wing stance invariably colours what he writes, making us share not his precise beliefs but the spiritual intensity that goes with them. I am convinced that the success of Gorecki's Third Symphony and of Tavener's The Protecting Veil with a broad public reflects a widespread eagerness to find a spiritual dimension in music, and it is clearly the same here. And as with both Gorecki and Tavener there is a physical, even sensual impact in the music alongside the spiritual.
The difference with MacMillan is that he cannot be accused in any way of dabbling in minimalism. In Veni, veni, Emmanuel he has written a concerto for percussion that in its energy as well as its colour consistently reflects not just the virtuosity of Evelyn Glennie, for whom it was written, but her charismatic personality, which has directly sparked off his dramatic flair. Taking the Advent plainsong of the title as his basis, he reflects in his continuous 26-minutes sequence the theological implications behind the period between Advent and Easter. The five contrasted sections are in a sort of arch form, with the longest and slowest in the middle. That section, ''Gaude, Gaude'', expresses not direct joy as the Latin words might suggest but a meditative calm, using the four relevant chords from the plainsong's refrain as a hushed ostinato. Over that the soloist on the marimba plays an elaborate but gentle and intensely poetic cadenza. The main sections on either side are related dances based on hocketing repeated notes and full of jazzy syncopations, with powerful sections for Advent and Easter respectively framing the work as a whole. The plainsong emerges clearly and dramatically as a chorale at the climax of the second dance-section, a telling moment.
The composer's descriptive notes are most helpful and detailed, totally avoiding airy-fairy generalization, but they deliberately keep quite about the coda, where MacMillan brings off another dramatic coup. After the soloist has worked through the widest range of percussion in the different sections, there is a gap when players in the orchestra pick up and start playing little jingling bells, and the soloist progresses up to the big chimes set on a platform above the rest of the orchestra. The very close of the work brings a crescendo of chimes intended to reflect the joy of Easter in the Catholic service and the celebration of the Resurrection. At that point I am slightly disappointed that this superb recording, with the orchestra as well as Evelyn Glennie playing with both brilliance and total commitment, does not quite reflect the extra thrill that we experienced from the original Prom performance. The preparatory jingles are gentle and discreet, and even the final chimes are devotional rather than exuberant, working to a crescendo which could have been bigger and more sustained. Even so, this is a magnificent representation of one of the most striking and powerful works written by any British composer of the younger generation.
After the tryst is a brief meditation for violin and piano on the same song-melody which MacMillan used in his big orchestral work The tryst, the coupling for Isobel Gowdie on the Koch Schwann disc. Untold is a lyrical slow movement for wind quintet with a haunting Irish flavour, and Three Dawn Rituals is an adaptation for conventional ensemble of music originally written for Javanese instruments, three sharply contrasted pieces which use many of the techniques developed in Veni, veni, Emmanuel. Those techniques are apparent again using plentiful percussion, in the biggest of the fill-up works, the six movements of ''… as others see us …''. They are all inspired by portraits of celebrated Englishmen contained in the National Portrait Gallery in Scotland, Henry VIII, John Wilmot, John Churchill (Duke of Marlborough) Byron and Wordsworth, T. S. Eliot and Dorothy Hodgkin. In each, MacMillan displays his gift for writing with sharp ingenuity, characterizing each subject strikingly, to make this a colourful, attractive suite, with various musical allusions from Tudor music to jazz, adding piquancy. In the fill-up works, with various ensembles of SCO players MacMillan himself inspires strong, positive performances. With first-rate, atmospheric sound—Veni, veni, Emmanuel recorded in Usher Hall Edinburgh, the rest in City Hall, Glasgow—this makes an outstanding first issue on BMG's new Catalyst label.'

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