Edinburgh Festival '99: Warm, harmonious and occasionally violent

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The Independent Culture

IT IS always hard to summarise a composer's personality, but if you can imagine long, keening, elegiac lines, intoning endlessly like plainsong; whimpering glissandi; outbursts of violence; warm statuesque harmonies, soured by wrong notes; and every kind of extreme, very high, very low, very loud, very soft - then you've got the idea of James MacMillan.

To all this must be added a deep, almost grim political and religious commitment that is not averse to the odd whim or fancy. Since the ferocious days of Isobel Gowdie, there have been more whims, less obvious political content. The three pieces that make up Triduum date from 1996-7 and relate to the Roman Catholic rituals of Easter week, using many of the associated chants.

This performance by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra was the first to combine all three in one concert. They make for a pretty hefty evening, almost three hours of breathtaking intensity and ear-shattering noise. But the conductor Osmo Vanska had the measure of them; his concentration never wavered and he was in touch with the music's directioned movement, which reveals itself only in the long run.

The World's Ransoming is a one-movement concertino for cor anglais, an instrument which proved a poor sustainer of MacMillan's long-breathed laments. It made one think of the bagpipes, moaning into the night over a cold sea-loch. Alongside the plainchant there was a Bach chorale which continually intruded, settling finally into the string body. At last there was a reference to tradition, for this, naturally, made one think of the chorale in Berg's Violin Concerto.

Raphael Wallfisch's account of the Cello Concerto was the most convincing of the three parts. He was authoritative, muscular, full of songful energy. And again, the sense of sadness, of lament and elegy, was overpowering, especially in the long slow movement, where the swirling harp and wind suggested wind and weather over a desolate landscape.

The Symphony "Vigil" is a major piece, with three long movements. There is an extra brass quintet which is initially offstage, afterwards in the auditorium, playing largely euphonius chords and proclamations, while the orchestral brass yap and growl. Based on the chant "Lumen Christi", the work is concerned with the idea of light, says its composer. But, in fact, its fragmentary structure had overtones of other works; Messiaen's birdsong, the jangling sound of gamelan and Berlioz's witches' sabbath all floated in and out of one's vision.

MacMillan is a clever deviser of conclusions, and the second movement ended with the sound of a musical box, played on celesta, which faded into inaction as the clockwork gradually ran down. It was one of MacMillan's strange whims, a sign of fantasy amid all the earnest sermonising.