Posted on October 23rd, 2010

Barbican Hall

One wonders if it was by design or accident that James MacMillan’s new Violin Concerto was programmed here alongside Stravinsky’s Symphony in C? MacMillan seemed to take up precisely where Stravinsky left off recalling the kinetic syncopations and even the melodic flavour of the symphony’s playful first movement. The energy of one happily infected the other.

Valery Gergiev and the London Symphony Orchestra came to both by way of a languorously seductive account of Debussy’s Prelude a l’apres-midi d’un faune, Gareth Davies’ solo flute stirring from the hush of slumber and nuzzling the opening bars first to elicit only silence (a truly pregnant pause) and then to breathe life into all around at a tempo that might be described as positively post-coital. In turn sultry and luminous, Gergiev plainly wanted the experience to linger.

Stravinsky’s wake-up call was thoroughly in character but not without its dropped stitches. No one comes through the rhythmic thickets and jazzily exposed wind solos of this amazing piece unscathed. Then again you could hear where the rehearsal had gone. James MacMillan’s brand new Violin Concerto – a 50th birthday present to himself and us – was in every sense of the phrase a complete knock-out. It was written for and played, with blinding virtuosity, by Vadim Repin who may well have answered the prayers of countless virtuosos for something new and audacious they could really play the socks off.

MacMillan always comes at music from his own Scottish perspective and this action-packed crowd-pleaser is essentially a compendium of song and dance digging deep into the primitivism of the distant past to unlock memories much closer to the present. There are dizzying, spinning reels, dirges and sentimental plaints with the violin often hauntingly evoking the “vocal” melismas of Celtic folk singers. One moment the fiddler is urging the entire string section to shake a leg, the next he’s in blissful repose with piano and piping piccolo lending a tearful consonance. Wild and wacky, dark and subversive, even brutal – what isn’t in the mix? The audience adored it.

Barring the odd plainchant, MacMillan’s Catholicism was kept well under wraps. Again, did he know he’d be rubbing shoulders with Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms? What a piece – as original now as it was in 1930. Stephen Sondheim once said he wished he’d written the “Alleluia”. Him and me both.

Posted in Reviews


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