MUSIC / MacMillan passes the test of time

THE ADVANTAGE of running a festival the size of Edinburgh's is that you can gamble badly one week and recoup your losses the next. And so it has been. Last week prompted misgivings about the usefulness of coupling Janacek with Schubert as a festival theme, and the wisdom of fixing so intense a spotlight on the developing composer James MacMillan. This week offered resolution of a sort on both fronts, and MacMillan glowed in triumph as a master of the medium of music theatre - something you might not have believed if, seven days before, you'd seen his opera Tourist Variations at the Traverse.

I suspended comment until today because I found the piece a dubious detour, unrepresentative of the direction MacMillan's work is currently taking and best considered beside his other theatre music in the festival. Part of a double bill (with a one-acter by Craig Armstrong called Anna), Tourist Variations was a frantic, dense and cynically verbose (libretto: Ian Heggie) cartoon of a couple talking themselves through, around, and not quite out of mid-life crisis. It encroached, dramatically and musically, on ground that Stephen Sondheim covers better, with a stronger sense of irony and the knowledge that however ideas-driven it gets, theatre still needs something to happen, if only to justify the wardrobe budget. Someone has to die a little, as Sondheim would say. Tourist Variations was too slick to die; and too close to the gloss of American off-Broadway minimalism to be something you could care about.

But you can't avoid caring about Busqueda or Visitatio Sepulchri, two MacMillan scores which played, unforgettably, at the King's Theatre this week. Busqueda infiltrates the Latin Mass with poems by the Argentinian 'Mothers of the Disappeared'; Visitatio Sepulchri sets a medieval liturgical drama, the visit to the sepulchre on Easter morning; and neither is conventional enough as theatre to belong in a place like the King's.

Busqueda was, in fact, just nominally staged, with static forces (singers, actors, narrator and chamber orchestra) rendered 'theatrical' by lighting. Tension is generated from shifts of gear between the ancient, formal Latin and the modern, urgent poetry (a technique only Britten, in the War Requiem, has employed more effectively) and from pushing the music to extreme contrasts of expressive intensity: the exaggerated peaks and troughs of raw emotion that Maxwell Davies made a feature of his early music-theatre scores. The music of Busqueda weeps the tears of the oppressed and screams the rhetoric of the oppressor in abrupt proximity. This isn't decorative angst like Tourist Variations. It's the real thing, speaking from the soul of the composer - a committed Catholic socialist - and with a passion we have learnt, alas, not to expect in modern music.

Visitatio Sepulchri is more austere but with an impressive, ceremonial grandeur which is beautifully encouraged into theatre by Francisco Negrin: a director whose visual genius I've admired before. He creates such a charged spectacle of resurrection drama here that it didn't occur to me until afterwards to wonder why Jesus (a key player, you might think) made no appearance.

But as a statement of faith - MacMillan is, of course, part of the new phenomenon of overtly Christian composers - it was convincing, and without recourse to the reflective banalities of Part, Gorecki, Tavener et al. The singers weren't outstanding; but the writing is choral rather than soloistic, so that wasn't a disaster. And the orchestral playing, from the Scottish Chamber Orchestra under Ivor Bolton (soon to be announced as the SCO's new music director), was superb. BMG plans to record both Visitatio and Busqueda with these personnel - including Juliet Stevenson, the narrator in Busqueda. If the recording has the force of these live performances it will be something to reckon with.

And so to Janacek and Schubert, who did actually have one thing in common: a frustrated ambition towards opera, which Janacek (who developed slowly through a long life) got the chance to realise but Schubert (who developed fast through a short life) didn't. Had Schubert died at 74 instead of 31, it's tempting to wonder what might have happened. But the omens, frankly, were not good, as Tuesday night at the Usher Hall suggested in a paired concert performance of Schubert's Die Freunde von Salamanka and Janacek's Sarka: two early operatic forays which show Janacek rising to the task with gusto and Schubert, er, not. Die Freunde was written at 19 and is a tame Mozartian singspiel (the spoken dialogue mercifully lost) which never touches the intensity of Schubert's core work. Juliet Stevenson, doing her festival rounds, provided a narration that managed to present the piece as more eventful than it evidently is. But otherwise the performance, by the BBC Scottish SO under David Robertson, was uninspired.

Sarka, by contrast, was a revelation. Janacek's first opera (which has never been published), it was one of the casualties of the composer's early life and he revised the

vocal writing several decades later. What we have, therefore, is not an unadulteratedly youthful statement like the Schubert, but an epic miniature that packs the mythic story of a warrior maid who inconveniently loves her enemy (touches of Norma) into just over an hour. Stirred by more stirring material, the performers - largely the same as for the Schubert - perked up. The young British baritone Neal Davies positively blossomed. And he was joined by two significant discoveries: an ardent, richly textured Czech soprano, Helena Kaupova, and an impressive British tenor, William Kendall, who should be heard more often. David Robertson (new Music Director of the Ensemble Contemporain) was as masterfully controlling as, before the interval, he'd been ineffectual. A lesson, there, in the determining effect of decent raw material.

Janacek enthusiasts might be interested to know that a 1953 recording of Sarka (the only one, I think) has just been issued on CD by Multisonic. But it's not a patch on what was heard up here in Edinburgh.