It is well known that many of James MacMillan's compositions are inspired by his Catholic beliefs, and both of the works on this new CD from the London Symphony Orchestra on LSO Live fall into the same category. But the prominent Scottish composer's ability to create instantly-appealing soundworlds and vivid musico-dramatic narratives has meant that his works are easily accessible, even to non-Christians or those who might be otherwise apathetic to the contemporary music scene. The two performances by Sir Colin Davis and the LSO in the fiftieth release on their excellent record label present as strong a case as any for the talents of a composer who has tended to eschew the avant-garde and instead embrace a more ethereal, atmospheric style of writing music.
The World's Ransoming (1995-6) was the first part of a triptych of works commissioned by the LSO in the 1990s, the others being the Cello Concerto for Rostropovich and the large-scale Symphony: Vigil. The three works explore aspects of the events of Holy Week and Easter. The World's Ransoming takes Maundy Thursday as its subject, the title coming from St Thomas Aquinas' hymn Pange lingua which discusses how Christ shed blood 'for the world's ransoming'.
MacMillan uses restraint to create a bleak ambience which is dominated by a solo cor anglais. All credit to Christine Pendrill for her impeccable and indefatigable performance of a work in which she barely gets a rest in over twenty minutes. After a jarring introduction with timpani beats, brass chords and high-pitched sustained string lines, the cor anglais takes charge through the whole piece. Tinkling bell sounds briefly provide a church-like atmosphere, but otherwise the piece has an otherworldly quality. Gentle murmuring in the strings, occasional dissonances from other woodwind players and a gradual build-up of tension lead to a violent climax, which nevertheless doesn't take hold for very long. A huge brass fanfare with tubular bells, snare drum and timpani rhythms and a low brass chorale with havoc in the high brass soon subside to allow the cor anglais to dominate again. Thudding wooden percussion and low strings end the piece in a mysterious light. Colin Davis conducts with utter conviction as to the work's structure and range of colours, and in so doing convinces this listener of its quality.
Yet it's The Confession of Isobel Gowdie (1990) which really excites here, every bit as much as it did when I heard the same forces perform the work in a memorable Prom a couple of years ago. MacMillan's 'act of contrition' for a woman who was senselessly strangled at the stake and burned in pitch in 1662 after being condemned for witchcraft is a brilliantly elegiac work that never fails to emote. Although not ostensibly programmatic, it's easy to perceive both the violence wreaked on Isobel and the mourning for her soul in what MacMillan describes as 'the Requiem that Isobel Gowdie never had'.
From the start, the composer creates a magical timbre mainly using the string section of the orchestra playing wide chords. There is an extraordinary cumulative effect with the strings; it's amazing how Macmillan takes his time, creating wonderful harmonic effects by gradually modifying the chords, which are carefully balanced by Davis and the LSO. The middle section features sliding brass and string effects, with big crescendi and thirteen massive brass and percussion chords as a climax. Turbulence amongst the low strings, brass and timpani gives way to a soaring string theme and a whirling brass line. In time, resolution comes in the strings with gentler sounds; the music becomes deeply emotional, and ends with a huge outburst.
It's typical of the LSO to celebrate their fiftieth homebred CD with unusual repertoire rather than something predictable; I for one will be glad if they continue in the same vein.
Forthcoming highlights on LSO Live include Mozart's Requiem (Feburary 2008) and Benvenuto Cellini (April 2008). James MacMillan's Passion will be recorded for future release.