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Composing against a rich past

11 August 2017

Roderic Dunnett hears MacMillan and Handel in recent concerts


Honoured: the Scottish composer Sir James MacMillan at Buckingham Palace in 2015

Honoured: the Scottish composer Sir James MacMillan at Buckingham Palace in 2015

THE prolific composer Sir James MacMillan’s 43-minute, single-span A European Requiem, inspired by a dictum of Pope John Paul II, and first heard at the Oregon Festival in 2016, will have its European pre­­mière in this year’s BBC Proms. But, elsewhere on the London musical scene, there has already been the world première of another Mac­Millan work, Blow the Trumpet in the New Moon.

This is a setting of what the composer calls “some joyful lines from the Geneva Bible version of Psalm 81, verses 1-4”: “Sing joyfully to God our strength . . . take the song, bring forth the timbrel . . .”, and, more famously, “Blow the trumpet in the new moon. . . For this is a statute for Israel, and a law of the God of Jacob.”

It is an exhilarating text. MacMillan, a National Youth Or­­ches­­tra of Scotland trumpeter in his youth, and the composer, around the Millennium, of a vibrant Trump­et Concerto, and more recently, one for trombone, brought all his pro­digious talents to provid­ing the Bach Choir under David Hill at the Royal Festival Hall with a delicious celebratory “choral fanfare” as an apt challenge (all the more so, since it was an unaccompanied work for large chorus) for its 140th-­anniversary season.

The writing for choir is charming, with MacMillan’s characteristic Celtic folk-derived melismas in evidence in the men’s as well as the soprano lines, some striking drones (again, a folk-inspired element) in the upper as well as lower voices, a thrilling “limping” rhythm (long-short-two longs) deployed like an energising ostinato, and an un­­ex­pected and disarming huge con­cluding cluster.

Modern Polish music is also a source: MacMillan is well acquainted with it, and studied for his doc­tor­ate, acquiring his gift for musical taut­ness, at Durham, under another super­lative composer, John Casken, who was a pupil of Lutoslawski. (Casken’s opera Golem, based on that medieval myth of good and evil, cries out for a revival at Opera North).

From much study, James Mac­Millan knows the whole of musical history intimately, from the me­­di­eval to the Second Viennese School (Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern) and beyond.


GEORGE FRIDERIC HANDEL had a similarly good grounding. He launched out from Hamburg and Hanover, before joining the Elector, by now King George I of England, in London. His supremely exciting and gloriously well-structured ora­torio Samson emerged just a month after Messiah in August 1741.

Samson has just been cham­pioned at Stour Music, a festival founded by the countertenor Alfred Deller, and still run south of Canter­bury by his son Mark, himself a celebrated former countertenor. Thanks to Deller’s un­­de­mon­­strative but always shrewd direction, what this high-voltage concert re­­­vealed was not just Handel’s competence, his gift for chara­cterising and shading, and for Baroque orchestral colouring, but also how he drew on an early journey to Italy, as well as on his Hamburg and Hanover colleagues and mentors, the Baroque opera composers Reinhard Kaiser and Agostino Steffani.

Once in England, Handel avidly devoured scores by Purcell, Lawes, Cook, and later Arne, and became almost the new English Purcell. Handel’s absorption of this com­promise “Franco-English-Italian” style and technique made him, a German, the truly English composer he so instantly became.

Above all, if you listened intently to Samson here at Stour Valley, so thrillingly presented in a church (Boughton Aluph) whose choir lay­out is unique, even odd, and yet whose stones throw the side-placed chorus’s sound out and around to perfection, you can hear all these musical con­­nections.

Sadly, the Irish writer Newburgh Hamilton’s (1691-1761) full text, drawn from Milton’s mid-17th-century drama Samson Agonistes, being obviously bulky, was not sup­plied (I think it should have been); but a brilliant synopsis, including the title or first line of every section, more than sufficed.

The soloists, being front-placed, were crystal clear. Among them, the characterful, bass-baritone Matthew Brook as the plotting Philistine spy chief/viceroy Harapha and the in­­vari­ably wonderfully articulate and impassioned tenor Charles Daniels, as the eponymous hero — both singers are invited regularly to the festival, and thank goodness — were superb from start to finish. Not a single word got lost, was garbled, or was somehow missed.

Credit goes, above all, to Deller for keeping the 18 adroit strings and seven winds and brass (Alex Caldon supplied the important trumpet solos, surely to perfection) at the right levels for the voices, some­times blasting, sometimes tenderly caressing for the other roles: the soprano Penelope Martin-Smith as the loyal Micah (a characterisation that oddly anticipates not just 18th/19th century soubrettes, but Puccini); the soprano Kathryn Jenkin as a snaky, two-timing, and impossibly vengeful Delilah, revel­ling in betrayal but, one hopes, ex­­ting­­uished in the great palace col­lapse; and the booming baritone Jozik Koc, as Samson’s touchingly understand­ing father Manoah, were all scintil­lating.

When the chorus realise the worst, and that their Dagon has lost, they are finally in their element. The last scenes really soared.

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