This week’s Seattle Symphony programme brings the third and last of the current season’s co-commissions — all of which are United States premières — with The Death of Oscar by James MacMillan. Music director Ludovic Morlot led the SSO in the previous two (Pascal Dusapin’s violin concerto Aufgang and Alexander Raskatov’s piano concerto Night Butterflies); for the MacMillan, Stéphane Denève, a champion of the composer since his tenure with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, was on hand as guest conductor. Denève had also premièred The Death of Oscar in November in Stuttgart, where he currently helms the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra.

Stéphane Denève © J Henry Fair
Stéphane Denève
© J Henry Fair

All three of these purely instrumental new works notably draw on some form of extra-musical inspiration — metaphorical and oblique in the case of the two concertos, traditionally programmatic in MacMillan’s compact tone poem, which lasts about ten minutes. Denève offered a charming and musically pertinent introduction to The Death of Oscar, the most recent of his varied collaborations with the Scottish composer.

Both Denève and MacMillan have sat for portrait busts by the sculptor Alexander Stoddart, the Queen’s Sculptor in Ordinary for Scotland. They learned of Stoddart’s long-range project to carve a massive sculptural monument  on the theme of the ancient Celtic warrior-bard Ossian and the saga of his son Oscar’s death. Destined for a granite hillside in the Western Highlands of Scotland and projected to be more than 30 meters long, this Death of Oscar sculpture would dwarf Edinburgh’s Sir Walter Scott Monument, evoking comparisons with the scale of Mount Rushmore. Stoddart’s sketches fired the proudly nationalist MacMillan’s imagination, resulting in the tone poem of the same name.

The issue of authenticity has vexed reception of the Ossianic cycle of poems ever since James Macpherson’s compilations from the 18th century triggered a literary sensation, but all this is of course irrelevant to the vision shared by Stoddart and MacMillan. The composer here taps into this material in the same spirit as Europeans at the dawn of the Romantic era, for whom Ossian suggested a portal into the hidden artistic possibilities of indigenous myth and legend. The particular legend here involves Oscar’s defiant challenge of his father’s betrayer and enemy, with whom he engages in single combat. Despite his victory, Oscar is fatally wounded, his death mourned as a sacrifice.

MacMillan’s three-part design frames the battle sequence — a relatively brief eruption of militaristic fanfares and knife-edge rhythms — with a shroud of musical lamentation, by far the score’s most memorable music. The Death of Oscar elicits echoes of the hero Siegfried via muffled drum beats and the darkly shadowed, Wagnerian brooding of its harmony and orchestration. The fragments of grief-stricken lament heard in the opening minutes, as if strewn across a smoking battlefield, coalesce in the final section’s elaborate threnody for English horn (given a wonderfully personal touch by Stephan Farkas in this long solo). A mood of Sibelian melancholy dominates before MacMillan rounds off the piece with a gesture of starkly tragic finality.

It’s all as impeccably scored as a stirring film soundtrack and pushes the desired emotional buttons — but the result is all too predictable. The Death of Oscar lacks the searing vision that animates MacMillan’s brand of neo-Romanticism in his most compelling scores. While the concertos by Dusapin and Raskatov represent substantial contributions to their genres, The Death of Oscar is a well-executed excursion into the Romantic tone poem shorn of any element of “neo.”

If the MacMillan was retro-Romantic, Paul Lewis’s account of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto no. 3 in C minor positively eschewed the standard-issue reading of that great score as a salvo of fiery early Romanticism — the “C minor Beethoven” who burst the bounds of Classical restraint. Indeed, Lewis emphasized a tone of austere control — evidenced, for example, in his tight-lipped grace notes and precision-engineered trills — that came close at times to ascetic Modernism.

It was an extraordinarily thoughtful reading, tracing motivic implications across the long span. Take the micro-second of tension Lewis introduced to the two opening notes of the finale’s rondo theme, which at last found release in an almost comic turn in the major key coda. Astonishing clarity and evenness of line likewise brought out details often allowed to drift by. Yet for all the fascination of Lewis’s ideas, I confess I didn’t find this a moving performance, particularly of the Largo, where he opted for abstraction over more obvious lyrical expression.

Denève was no passive accompanist but contributed a meticulous understanding of the details of Beethoven’s language — for example, refusing to rush the telling pauses in the orchestral exposition, or in his articulation of dynamics — and established proportionately effective tempi across the entire concerto. And his keen rapport with Lewis gave ample room for the soloist to pursue his line of thought.

Denève’s rapport with the Seattle musicians, whom he has conducted on several occasions, is also excellent. It’s hard to imagine a more vivid advocate for MacMillan’s new piece, and he likewise brought evident enthusiasm and affection to Rachmaninov’s Symphony no. 2 in E minor, which occupied the entire second half of the programme. Unfortunately, even with the SSO on very good form — the string ensemble was well balanced, blooming in the Adagio — I couldn’t be persuaded. I say this as an admirer of Rachmaninov, including of several other of his orchestral works, yet even under these auspicious circumstances the Second felt interminably drawn-out. 

Already in 1907 the Romantic outpouring of the Adagio comes dangerously close to parody, though there was an abundance of characterful, sensitive playing (especially from clarinetist Christopher Sereque and cellist Efe Baltacıgil). The dark opening Largo made for a promising atmospheric start, the scherzo and finale danced with scintillating colors, but those longueurs had to be traversed. In this case, the blame lies with the composer.