SCO / Macmillan / Prokofiev
Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh
At the heart of the first in this new series of Thursday online concerts by members of the SCO is James MacMillan’s Tuireadh, written in 1991 in memory of the victims of the Piper Alpha disaster of 1988. Scored for clarinet and string quartet, it sits powerfully within the programme’s common thread of wind-string chamber combinations, but its grim, often painful, countenance gives it an agonising central presence, Britten’s early elemental Phantasy Quartet and Prokofiev’s ebullient Quintet offering less anguish either side.
That’s not to underplay the depth of engagement in all three performances. As an opener, Britten’s student composition is illuminating as an early insight into the composer’s later signature voice. The extreme clarity of texture – a primal two-note opening motif expanding as a springboard towards the oboe’s first languishing melody – is far from naive, and a powerful preemptor of Britten’s ability to express his thoughts with intense nuclear precision.
This is a vital performance with exemplary playing from the string trio and, above all, Amy Turner’s exquisite and dominant role as oboist. An ending that returns to the opening material is all the more effective as the dissolving resolution to this all-embracing interpretation.
The limelight shifts to clarinet for the MacMillan, critical from the outset where an emerging breathy hiss transforms into a single chilling note, agonisingly repeated. It’s a dramatic moment, right up clarinettist Maximiliano Martin’s street, from which this lengthy lament unfolds with agonising grief.
Like the Britten, it is representative of MacMilllan in his early years of mainstream composition. The seeds are there: the bare theatricality of isolated unison notes rising to deafening crescendos; keening glissandi that evoke a rugged Scottish primitivism; harmonics that throw a ghostly halo over hymn-like harmonies. These are like a blueprint for later, greater MacMilllan.
At the time of its origin, one critic said of Tuireadh that “MacMillan has written nothing better”. The fact is he’s written lots better ever since, though that is not to dismiss what is a genuinely moving reflection on the mood of the time in the wake of a disaster that took so many lives.
There is, nonetheless, a sense of fragmentation and consequent prolixity, together with a noticeable presence of stylistic borrowings, which are hard to ignore even in such a heartfelt performance as this. Yet Maximiliano and his colleagues find everything that is powerful in its deep-felt message. It remains a tour-de-force in MacMillan’s now epic canon.
The concert ends on a cheerier note with Prokofiev’s Quintet Op 39, a six-movement suite made up of music from his chamber ballet Trapèze, written in 1924 while he was living in Paris. Scored unusually for oboe, clarinet, violin, viola and bassoon – he wrote for the ensemble he was presented with – the music is typical of Prokofiev’s acid pen, combining satire and nostalgia like a bittersweet pill. The SCO ensemble revel in its playful irreverence while respecting its warm and affectionate undercurrents.
View this concert at www.sco.org.uk