Music review: Cumnock Tryst by James MacMillan

by
26 October 2018

Sombre MacMillan war piece had fine première, Roderic Dunnett reports

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WHEN the late Sir Peter Maxwell Davies commissioned James MacMillan, then 29, to write a work for his 1989 St Magnus Festival — Tryst, inspired by the poet William Soutar (1898-1943), who wrote in broad Scots as well as English — there were certain things that he could not foretell. But he had a sense of the greatness that MacMillan was on his way to achieving.

Davies remained MacMillan’s mentor, though an atheist; yet he produced over the years countless settings of sacred texts. MacMillan, the committed Roman Catholic, has already surpassed even Davies’s choral output. In 2014, he also launched a new festival in rural Ayrshire inspired by the St Magnus Festival in Orkney, which Maxwell Davies launched in 1977.

Orkney is a fishing, farming, and oil community. Cumnock, where MacMillan grew up, is a former mining town. The arrival of hisnew festival has proved a shot in the arm for that depressed part of central Ayrshire. It encourages youth; it promotes significant local talent; and it draws in the best.

It has the Scottish violin virtuoso Nicola Benedetti as its patron — indeed, she performed extensively at the first Cumnock Tryst; for that is what MacMillan has named his festival (Arts, 31 October 2014). After an impressive first year’s response from local people, it now draws huge audiences from far beyond the locality. It has become a Scottish national event.

This autumn, the fifth Cumnock Tryst was a triumph. This was not only in the obvious ways: a stupendous new full-length oratorio from MacMillan himself, supported by the 14-18 NOW Great War Centenary Art Commissions, featuring the world-class English tenor Ian Bostridge, and based on the poetry of the Aberdeen-born Charles Hamilton Sorley, who was killed at the battle of Loos, aged 20. On the evidence of the five poems that MacMillan has chosen to set, this was one of the greatest losses to British poetry in the 20th century.

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The work, All the Hills and Vales Along (the first line and effectively the title of one of Sorley’s poems), will be repeated, in its fully orchestrated form, by the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, with the National Youth Brass Band of Great Britain, at the Barbican Hall in London, on Sunday 4 November at 7 p.m. It is one of MacMillan’s best works in any genre.

There were other events in the festival which were quite staggering. An example was the Festival Promenade “triple” concert at the beautifully restored Dumfries House and Gardens. Walking round the tapestried rooms, I was struck by a double-bass recital (by the young Russian virtuoso Nikita Naumov) and a wonderful wind-quintet concert: I’d have liked to hear Schoenberg’s or Carl Nielsen’s, but we did get the perky Poulenc-like Jean Françaix quintet in the Great Hall. The five accomplished performers were hunched in a niche that produced the most immediate and focused acoustic.

Most sensational of all was the central item of this three-parter: a cluster of teenage bell-ringers (and singers) from Greenmill Primary School, which, I believe, MacMillan himself attended. He conducted these young performers in person. Their sensitive ears, perceptiveness, rhythmic vitality, and instrumental dexterity were wonderful.

As Maxwell Davies spread his Orkney festival out from the capital, Kirkwall, so MacMillan and his excellent administrative team have taken in not just (Old) Cumnock but New Cumnock, too, about five miles down the road, and the Parish Church of Auchinleck, the village just to the north. These, too, have suffered from an economic disaster almost comparable to the Highland Clearances.

Each of these outreach events of the Tryst, like the performers engaged to encourage local and countywide talent, is testimony to the praiseworthy all-inclusiveness of these “trysts” — meetings of people and minds. At present, they last four days; subject to audience take-up, we may see them extended in future.

What were billed as, and turned out to be, the highlights this year came on the closing Sunday. The first was MacMillan’s own new work. This, typically, drew in Scottish talent: the Dallington Band (with solo cornet, an instrument that MacMillan learnt as a child); the Edinburgh Quartet (to be replaced by full strings in the London première under Gianandrea Noseda); Sirocco Winds (former members of the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland); and the Cumnock Tryst Festival Chorus (an idea proposed, after the first Festival, by Eamonn Dougan, who also conducted, most ably, incisively, and, where appropriate, laid-back and hands-off, this première).

The title of All the Hills and Vales Along is from the first and longest of the five poems, which is also the most benign, although death stalks even these stanzas, akin to others that the public schoolboy Sorley had devised in his head, and possibly penned, on solo cross-country runs across the Marlborough Downs.

“Earth that bore with joyful ease Hemlock for Socrates” is not exactly jolly stuff; nor is “Earth that blossomed and was glad ‘Neath the cross that Christ had” — an interesting Shakespearian tweaking of metre — “Shall rejoice and blossom too When the bullet reaches you.”

Killed on 13 October 1915, Sorley anticipated both Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen. His “Sonnet: When you see millions of the mouthless dead” had, by its first line, eclipsed any blithe Home Front assumptions about war. Even “Rooks” steers the same way: “Perhaps no man, until he dies Will understand them, what they say”: more naïve, perhaps, but mortality is perhaps the recurrent theme in the small body of Sorley’s verses.

MacMillan’s fourth setting, “A hundred thousand million mites we go” — British (or German) young men slogging on foot between frontline trench and behind the lines — puts it perfectly: “Some black with death — And some are white with woe.” This is an indictment of all that England stood for in 1914-18.

The decision to set “To Germany” — as sympathetic an embracing of the future foe (whom, having lived for a year in Mecklenburg from 1913-14, he thought stupid, but not bad) as Owen’s “Strange Meeting” — was one of several strokes of genius that pick this new venture out from the rest of this composer’s striking oeuvre. The world première was conducted by Dougan with insight, born of experience, into MacMillan’s musical idiom, and intense feel for pacing and balance.

The two movements for solo tenor which MacMillan artfully intersperses, reserving exactly the right lines for his soloist, were each sung with disarming beauty, empathy, and intelligence by Ian Bostridge, whose solo Lieder recital on the Friday had delved fascinatingly into the realms of not always obvious Brahms and Mahler settings, but most particularly a song, “Ich will dir singen ein Hohelied”, by Rudi Stephan (1887-1915). Stephan was killed two weeks before Sorley (29 September), likewise by a sniper’s bullet in the head, in Galicia, while fighting on the Eastern Front for his native Germany.

Dougan is also associate conductor of The Sixteen, who took part to glorious effect in the first Tryst, and were chosen by MacMillan to provide the climax of the 2018 Festival. Harry Christophers was at the helm, demonstrating his usual panache and incredibly meticulous behind-the-scenes work exploring and mastering, a wealth of repertoire, particularly that of the somewhat neglected 14th century.

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Christophers focused on William Cornysh (or Cornish): in fact, a pair of Henrician composers of sacred music of the same name (possibly father and son, the elder c.1468-1523, Master of the Children of the Chapel Royal from 1509 until his death). Several of the listed works (some from the Eton Choirbook) cannot be attributed on style or date grounds to one or the other.

The same choir had had a run out in Coventry Cathedral, in a concert juxtaposing these proto-Tudor giants with music by Benjamin Britten — the latter sung fabulously with a clarity of line that Britten would have appreciated. But the Cornyshes — in works of colossal innovation — nearly stole the show, as they did again at Cumnock.

Here, also, MacMillan’s new anthem “O virgo prudentissima” was joined by three other commissions: from Phillip Cooke (“Ave Maria mater Dei”), Joseph Phibbs (“Nesciens Mater”), and Marco Galvani (“Stella caeli”). All four drew their Marian theme and inspiration from The Sixteen’s sponsor and supporter, the religious philanthropist John Studzinski, of the Genesis Foundation. I thought that the two outer works were marvellous: only the Phibbs was disappointing, from a composer 15 years MacMillan’s junior, and of proved massive talent and originality.

MacMillan reaches 60 next July, just in time to be celebrated by his own 2019 festival, which he must hope will long outlast him, as Aldeburgh has outlived Britten. If a fifth Festival is a landmark, I hope that we can look forward to many more while its moving spirit is still around as guide and inspiration. The Tryst is alive and kicking and seems to be very much here to stay.

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