The position of Composer in Residence at the Grafenegg festival may as well be called Composer-Conductor in Residence, as the appointments of Tan Dun, HK Gruber, and now James MacMillan have established a tradition whereby the lucky candidates are not only required to be intimately involved with the programming and preparation of their music, but also to stand in front of an orchestra and lead the festival’s closing night. Nothing says hugging close to the mainstream quite like having James MacMillan as your least populist Composer in Residence, and one wonders for how long the exclusion of non-performing composers, many of whom are no less interesting for not being conductors, can continue, what with the pool of freelance composer-conductors not being bottomless. But for the moment Grafenegg’s strategy is ensuring a prominent role at the festival for contemporary music, not to mention an unusually integrated one – composers in residence don’t get their music randomly sprinkled around the festival schedule but are charged with designing entire programmes, consisting of their own works and those by composers close to them. With HK Gruber last year it was Weill, now with MacMillan it has been Britten and Vaughan Williams.

Tonkünstler-Orchester Niederösterreich at Grafenegg © Peter Rigaud
Tonkünstler-Orchester Niederösterreich at Grafenegg
© Peter Rigaud

The major MacMillan work on this programme, a setting of the Credo premièred earlier this summer at the Proms, was a largely forgettable affair. Not intended for liturgical use, the work hands a hymnodic sacred idiom to the chorus and an exotic and sometimes brash accompaniment to the orchestra, though whether this is meant to symbolize a clash, a symbiosis, or some kind of ecumenical exercise where everybody learns just to rub along, is unexplained. Plainly evident at any rate is the scant musical interest of what unfolds: the chorus moves homophonically and chromatically in sluggish stepwise motion, a dirge-like texture interrupted by various instrumental effects – a bit of cello spiccato here, some random harmonics there, and the most conspicuous entry, a snatch of Gaelic folk-song done as a viola obbligato. Having amorphously plodded along for 15 minutes or so, the piece reaches an overdue end just as it starts to show some signs of tension.

Orchestral excerpts from MacMillan’s opera The Sacrifice fared a little better. As phantasmagorical as the proverbial adventurous film score, the first interlude saw the cellos scuttling up and down the fingerboard as a motoric build-up to a cacophonous apex, not for nothing titled ‘The Parting’. The second interlude, termed ‘Passacaglia’, didn’t seem particularly structured as such despite a clear arch-like shape, the climax with snazzy muted brass provoked by means of Shostakovich-like interruptions. A soaring violin theme contrasted with a busy texture and dactylic rhythms in the final interlude, with another sustained build-up consciously echoing the sacrificial dance from the Rite of Spring without seeming too similar musically.

It was however Peter Grimes rather than MacMillan’s opera I longed to hear more of, after listening to the Sea Interludes from that work done as a curtain-opener. The Tonkünstler-Orchester Niederösterreich’s playing was distinctively central European in colour, but the music didn’t suffer even if deprived of its customary saltiness and grit – the surging of the waves in the third number was more like a giant lung exhaling, a motion made convincing enough by the massed strings. I had expected the fourth interlude to sound like Mahler, but here, oddly enough, the pettiness and nastiness of the Borough was to be found in place of the storm Britten whips up. Britten can travel in unusual ways and here a curiously compelling case was made for a departure from how this music is conventionally played.

Even if the divided cellos from the third of the Sea Interludes had looked forward to the Vaughan Williams to come, this big symphony, Vaughan Williams’ Fourth, was no more idiomatic than what had preceded it. The bold unison strokes of the opening give way to the two jagged parts of a theme set against each other and, as in the earlier MacMillan piece, Shostakovich came through strongly, chiefly the angularity of the Fifth Symphony’s second movement. The development section possessed great clarity with the lyrical second subject not struggling too hard to assert itself, and the tranquil close to the movement featured an engaging flute solo and beautiful shimmering strings.

The woodwind portraiture continued in the winding solos given to that section in the second movement with another haunting flute solo to conclude, and cellos and bass pizzicato throughout was firm and not too metallic. The Scherzo was boisterously played but seemed to ramble on a bit, aside from a truly bizarre trombone entry towards the end, which sounded for all the world as if rambunctiously punched out by that German oompah band of lore, the Amazing Bavarian Stompers. No such levity infringed the frenzied severity of the final movement, which joylessly culminates in a cymbal crash and did exactly so here, too efficient for the trace of Bruckner to linger. I am at a loss to say what this all amounted to, though with Vaughan Williams’ least English-sounding symphony the sense of displacement seemed appropriate enough.