Britten Sinfonia/MacMillan, Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

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The Independent Culture

There's a spread of James MacMillan's music on the national agenda this season, with a new concerto to start. This came in a neat touring package from the Britten Sinfonia, which made your ears find surprising links between disparate works. They were all played with exactness, intensity and, in MacMillan's conducting of other composers' music, a refreshing lack of interpreter's ego. But, with Joanna MacGregor as soloist, his own Piano Concerto No 2 was always going to be the centre of attention.

A decade and a half ago, MacMillan wrote a wild, brilliant piece for piano and orchestra called The Berserking, which was overshadowed by the success of The Confession of Isobel Gowdie. The latest composition's first movement already existed, under the title Cumnock Fair; the other two were added after a commission from New York City Ballet earlier this year. Far from being a soloist's showcase, the piano part is tightly woven into the string texture, and rarely breaks free until the end.

The music has a pungent character of its own, full of slightly distorted Scots dance tunes. Midway, it carries out a Maxwell-Davies-style dismemberment of a dizzy waltz from the mad scene in Donizetti's opera Lucia di Lammermoor. In the finale, a full-scale ceilidh breaks out, cramming the music into the regular structures of a reel. The score asks the pianist to make the instrument sound "like a pub piano".

Restive undercurrents eventually surface. There is a sustained, haunting attempt at peace, with orchestral slithers and swooshing piano cascades, but this central movement ends in a panic like the destructive rages in Schnittke's music. There is another shock to come. Violins utter a muffled scream during the ceilidh, and the solo part gradually falls off its hinges until it obliterates the orchestra in a ferocious improvised assault on the keyboard with palms and forearms. The effect on the London audience was audible dismay. The violent payoff was presented in a tone that put it among the most sustained musical embodiments of scorn and disgust.

At the start of the concert Britten's Prelude and Fugue had a polarity between subdued and frantic playing that made it like a premonition of MacMillan's style. Later, Cantus, by Arvo Part, sounded like a lament for whatever it was that had happened. Even in the Bartok Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste, the finale's pressing of the self-destruct button on its pervasive folk style echoed the prevailing mood.

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