With countless accolades in recent years, and his chamber opera Clemency nominated for Best New Opera Production in this year’s Olivier Awards, James MacMillan continues to enjoy a place as one of Britain’s most prestigious living composers – not that this appeared to intimidate the young but highly capable throngs of the Guildhall Symphony Orchestra, whom he conducted on Wednesday evening. Coached by LSO players as part of the LINK Alliance scheme, they graced the Barbican with a generally stunning delivery of an equally stunning programme. Three thrilling twentieth-century works – by MacMillan himself, Benjamin Britten and Sergei Prokoviev – flourished in front of a lamentably sparse audience.

James MacMillan © Hans van der Woerd
James MacMillan
© Hans van der Woerd

Three Interludes, extracted from MacMillan’s opera The Sacrifice, form a 20-minute suite. It is a gorgeous piece of orchestration, with echoes of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. Characteristically, MacMillan’s score balances torment and simplicity, gutsy knotted chords and folky twists. The Interludes work so well in concert that one forgets their original operatic context. They maintain a sense of grandeur and momentum, from “The Parting” (of protagonists Sian and Mal), through the second movement Passacaglia (“The Marriage”). As the music ominously leads towards an abrupt ending, the GSO’s execution of the haunting brass melodies, with percussion including tuned gongs and tubular bells, was excellent. The powerful end of final movement, “The Investiture”, struck clearly home, despite the swollen ranks of the orchestra.

Compact, multi-layered and laden with grief, Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem remains one of his most effective orchestral pieces, if not one of his most performed. It has an interesting provenance too, commissioned by the Chinese government when Britten was just 26; but it was thrown aside due to the Christian liturgical titles of the three movements. Tonight, the Lacrymosa stood out as soul-wrenching. The cellos seemed to reach out with emotion in their early sequence of ascending intervals, the melancholia of this work well crafted by the GSO. The strong separate elements blended together into an impressive performance; bold timpani giving the Lacrymosa thrust and well-judged syncopation keeping a sense of restlessness. The gradual move towards major tonality after a crashing climax was lovingly realised.

There’s a reason that “Montagues and Capulets” movement is often severed from the rest of Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juilet: it is the ballet’s most striking episode. The perfect arpeggiaic storm of diabolic string melodies surging over the tuba bass line still sets pulses racing even though the tune is now so overused outside the concert-hall. Pushing the boundaries (as was Prokofiev’s wont) of pitch range and orchestration, it’s by far the most exciting section of the suite. Tonight’s ‘Suite’ was a strange collection of numbers from the three Suites which are conventionally assembled, and it was arguably too long by a movement or two. Even with Prokofiev, the perennial problem with performing ballet music without the visual attraction of the dancers is that it can become meandering. But the various romantic, tragic and expressive characters shone through, with MacMillan calmly in control even when the orchestra seemed to tire. The GSO should be proud of the excellent leadership from Laura Lutzke, a memorable viola solo, and consistently outstanding brass performances.

It was a shame that some tuning issues shook the very end of the concert off course. But so satisfying were the bounties that came before, that no-one was complaining.

****1