First Night: MacMillan has the spirit but lacks substance

The Proms Royal Albert Hall London
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The Independent Online
JAMES MACMILLAN'S first turn under this year's Proms spotlight came last night, when his Cello Concerto was performed by Raphael Wallfisch and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra under their Finnish chief conductor Osmo Vanska (the second comes on 5 September, when his new choral work, Quickening, is premiered). The concerto, written in 1996, is the middle part of an Easter trilogy: MacMillan's Catholic faith is very important to him, and almost all his works, it seems, reflect his spiritual concerns.

Thus the Cello Concerto's three movements portray aspects of the Crucifixion. Unfortunately, MacMillan is so keen to load his narration with incident that he constantly interrupts its evolution with orchestral commentary, weakening its onward thrust. He brings all sorts of musical material to his aid, not least figures derived from plainchant, and the central movement calls on the hymn "Dunblane", linking the pointless slaughter of those schoolchildren to the death of Christ. But these associations are verbal, not musical, and no matter how much they mean to MacMillan (and his sincerity is not in doubt), they vitiate his structures.

The writing is often very beautiful. His unabashedly tonal language finds plenty of room for long, plangent melody. And he has an alert ear for innovative instrumental combinations. But there is simply not enough substance to sustain the concerto for its 40-minute duration. There's no real slow music, for example, and no real fast music; instead, there's so much detailed variety that large-scale contrast is lost.

Raphael Wallfisch, who has recorded the work with Vanska and his Scottish players, despatched the taxing solo part with ease and obvious commitment. But the real treats of the evening came either side of the concerto. Vanska is doing amazing things with the BBC Scottish, their lean and focused sound an ideal vehicle for his refreshing habit of blowing the dust of apparently well-known scores: he simply ignores "tradition" and goes back to the notes, with revelatory results.

The two works to come up fresh last night were Sibelius's symphonic fantasy Pohjola's Daughter and Nielsen's Sixth Symphony, the Sinfonia semplice - an ironic misnomer, as the music is more oblique than anything else Nielsen wrote. Here he is, aware of his imminent death, embracing a new musical language and casting it in a lean, pared-to-the-bone orchestration - developments that Shostakovich, shortly to sit down to his Fourth Symphony, obviously admired, and which Vaughan Williams, 24 years on, tried in his Eighth.

Vanska made Nielsen's dry, dark humour almost understandable, with superb playing from his Glasgow players: breathtaking detail in the strings, clarity and purity from wind and brass, and percussion-playing (an important consideration in this work) of considerable virtuosity. I've never heard it done better.