Faith of our fathers
Barbican/BBC Radio 3
James MacMillan: Britannia
John Casken: Violin Concerto
James MacMillan: Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis
James MacMillan: The Confession of Isobel Gowdie
James MacMillan (conductor), Daniel Hope (violin)
BBC Philharmonic, BBC Singers
The BBC's January composer weekends at the Barbican have recently alternated between twentieth-century greats (Schnittke, Cage) and living saints (John Adams, and this year's James MacMillan). For MacMillan, as for Adams, his personal beliefs and enthusiasms are inseparable from his music, and he is forthright in his advocacy of music as a humanizing force against sectarianism and tribal nationalism. MacMillan, though, is perhaps as influential through the quantity as the quality of his compositions: as well as the usual concert commissions, he has written a range of occasional and, particularly, liturgical music. Although he himself is a committed Roman Catholic, much of his liturgical music is in Anglican formats, perhaps because of the beauty of their English texts. And again, his non-liturgical music has something in common with P&aum;rt and the "holy minimalists"; The World's Ransoming ends with a hammering of nails into the cross that recalls Galina Ustvolskaya's Composition 2 - Dies irae and, more generally, her pervasive choice of the theme of redemption.
But MacMillan is never remotely as "difficult" as Ustvolskaya. He often works with texts that state clearly the ideas he wants to express, poems by Ariel Dorfman and the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo and extracts from the mass in Cantos Sagrados, about Argentina's Disappeared, a cycle of poems about conception and birth by his frequent collaborator Michael Symmons Roberts in Quickening, a complex choral work, and another text by Symmons, in collaboration with Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, in Parthenogenesis, a scena whose technique recalls Monteverdi's Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda, while its subject and some of its music recalls Purcell's The Blessed Virgin's Expostulation, but all in the context of parthenogenesis as cloning rather than, or as well as, as the miraculous birth of Christ. Parthenogenesis was written in 2000, the same year that Glyndebourne produced John Lunn's Zoe, an opera developed from the ideas and concerns of sixteen- to eighteen-year-old students that deals with the same topic. MacMillan, always acknowledged as accessible, also manages to deal with what is on people's minds.
Given the diversity of MacMillan's output, the BBC Philharmonic's Saturday night concert was less of a compilation of key pieces than usual in the BBC's composer weekends. The closest to an off-the-news composition was Britannia, a short, initially comic and ultimately bitter medley of national themes somewhere between Fritz Spiegl's ingenious, exhilarating and inoffensive suite, played between the end of the World Service and the Today programme on BBC Radio 4, and the Last Night of the Proms. The title and the Proms allusions, which include off-the-beat farty explosions, may glance at the recent past of Northern Ireland, but the overall effect is more of a question about what is good in national musical traditions and what is evil. The tunes are enjoyable even if bigots use them aggressively.
John Casken's Violin Concerto, the customary "teacher's piece", was traditional in form and style, and, as played by Daniel Hope, glorious if tough in effect. Where MacMillan often focuses on anxieties, Casken's long lyrical lines are both darker and less specific in their spirituality.
MacMillan's apparently workmanlike Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis are entirely performable by (Anglican) church choirs. They seem conventional in form, with the merest modal spin and a recurring gesture that might in other contexts be called a Scotch snap. But a stirring performance by the BBC Singers revealed the power of the core of ideas of the hymns, exultation of God's goodness and contentment in its fulfillment respectively.
The Confession of Isobel Gowdie was MacMillan's breakthrough work in 1990. Like his other signature work, the 1992 percussion concerto Veni, Veni, Emmanuel, it is a masterful and hypnotically energetic, but also expressive of profound anger at the arbitrary torture and murder of the eponymous witch, in 1662 in Naim, Scotland. MacMillan's characteristic Scottish and religious subject matters are combined in a kind of Reformation Symphonie Fantastique, a personal vision that expresses a grim but exhilarating world view. The BBC Philharmonic and the composer-conductor worked particularly well together in the maelstrom.