MUSIC / Double Play: Visions of a new beginning
Saturday 16 October 1993
Emmanuel. After the Tryst.
'. . . as others see us . . .'
Three Dawn Rituals. Untold
Evelyn Glennie, Scottish
CO / Saraste, MacMillan
(RCA Catalyst 09026-61916-2)
THE coup de theatre at the close of Veni, Veni, Emmanuel, James MacMillan's so-called percussion concerto, isn't mentioned in his detailed programme notes. MacMillan knows the value of surprise; he's a natural dramatist - no bad thing for a composer.
In the case of the 'concerto', theatricality is first and last the name of the game, and he has quite a leading lady in Evelyn Glennie. The visual impact of her balletic, mallet-wielding exhibition is a considerable loss, though one is compensated by the immediacy, the keener profiling of the percussion writing, a restless spirit of exuberant drummings and hushed metallic musings carrying us (and MacMillan's omnipresent plainchant) irresistibly towards the glad tidings - an Easter Day panoply of bells.
There, I've given the game away - but only because this protracted resonance might have swelled for longer here (as it did at last year's Prom premiere). After the Tryst tells you a lot about MacMillan's excitable, never-passive lyricism; '. . . as others see us . . .' is a delicious mis-match of the ecclesiatical and the jazzy. MacMillan is always, in some sense or other, 'on stage' as a composer, anxious that we join him; it seems odd, uneasy even, just sitting at home listening.
FOR me there is a lingering problem with Veni, Veni, Emmanuel. It can be fabulous to watch - as anyone who has seen Glennie hurling herself around the ranks of drums, gongs and bells will testify. But with just the music to go on, I find a lot of the percussion writing surprisingly unmemorable. The orchestral invention is well up to MacMillan's highest standards: ecstatic brass chants, spiky dance figures, the transformations of the Veni, Veni plainchant ingenious but easy to follow. Against this, the percussion writing can sound more like hyperactive decoration than a leading musical voice.
I still think this is a very encouraging issue. Looking at trends in new music today it sometimes seems that arid simplicity has replaced manic complexity. At his best, MacMillan has an instinct for balancing the simple and the ingenious, or for throwing them into confrontation. There's much more invention in his music than in Gorecki or in all but the best Tavener, but the basic idea is just as clear - and the feeling behind it is strong and directly expressed. Production and performances here are outstanding. If future Catalyst issues are on this level it should be a really useful label - though I hope BMG won't stick exclusively to what the booklet calls the 'accessible'.
Dona nobis pacem
Soloists, London Symphony
Chorus and Orch / Hickox
(EMI CDC 7 54788-2)
HERE is Vaughan Williams in the wake of war, haunted by the past, wary of the future. In both these pieces, the last word is one of uncertainty, a shadow of doubt falling across gleaming visions of new beginnings.
Spiritually the two works make natural bedfellows, materially they are opposites. Walt Whitman's big-boned, emotive verse lifts Dona nobis pacem on to a more dynamic level of engagement. And this is quite a performance, resoundingly engineered. LSO bugles and percussion zealously heed the summons of 'Beat] beat] drums]', the hellish onomatopoeic clatter of Whitman's words coming through with alarming clarity from the chorus. Bryn Terfel, caring for every well-placed syllable, further enhances VW's beautiful setting of 'Reconciliation', and Yvonne Kenny speaks for us all with her plangent petitions.
Sancta Civitas is more elusive: mystical, remote by design. Even so, a few longueurs over Babylon are as nothing compared to the austere beauty of the solo violin tracing our path to the Holy City. And there's a genuinely sensational moment of light as the St Paul's choristers proclaim the Trinity from on high. ES
IF record catalogues are anything to go by, Vaughan Williams's symphonies are going through a major rehabilitation at the moment. Why not the choral works? Coming back to these two ambitious choral-orchestral pieces I think I know why. There's some wonderful music; the weird, hushed opening of Sancta Civitas tingles with promise; Dona nobis pacem has moments of barbarity and anguish that wouldn't be out of place in the Sixth Symphony.
But beside these inspirations are stretches where the invention sags and the all-too-familiar VW fingerprints cover the canvas - bald, triadic choral writing, or the pallid modal march-tune at 'Dirge for Two Veterans'. The performances are splendid: firm, assertive choral singing, powerful, atmospheric orchestral support (beautifully recorded), impassioned prayers for peace from the soprano Yvonne Kenny, and baritone solos from Bryn Terfel that send tiny claws running up the spine. SJ
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