Premières of works by Sir James MacMillan seem to come thick and fast these days. Only last Friday his Trombone Concerto (written a year ago) had its UK première, and now his new oratorio All the Hills and Vales Along in its full version received its world première at the Barbican – the slimmed down arrangement was first heard just last month at Ayrshire’s Cumnock Tryst festival in Scotland.

Ian Bostridge © Sim Canetty-Clarke
Ian Bostridge
© Sim Canetty-Clarke

Commissioned by the London Symphony Orchestra and 14-18 NOW, All the Hills and Vales Along is scored for the unusual combination of chorus, tenor soloist, brass band and string orchestra, and of its six movements five set texts by the Scots poet Charles Hamilton Sorley who was killed in 1915 at the battle of Loos. His poems are unflinchingly honest; bleak and sardonic. Onto this MacMillan crafts music of cinematic intensity, a stylistic mash up of gutsy marches, hymn-like paeans and angst-ridden expressivity, the whole prefaced by an introduction of mesmerising quietness where slow, hallucinogenic string sonorities seemed to conjure the souls of Sorley’s dead comrades rising out of their graves. If that’s too fanciful, then the calm before the storm was utterly gripping.

Certainly, the string players of the LSO who launched this work were on magnificent form and their younger colleagues in the shape of 80 or so members of the National Youth Brass Band of Great Britain (many of them only a few years younger than Sorley when he died aged 20) were also highly accomplished. Exposed, but technically undemanding writing for brass and percussion supported the London Symphony Chorus who sang with customary verve and conviction even when the choral writing, to my ears, may not have been especially demanding or rewarding.

The most striking passages were two movements for tenor and strings to which Ian Bostridge responded to MacMillan’s operatic demands with considerable flair (if not always complete security). Both the yearning of Rooks and the fury of A hundred thousand million mites we go drew an intensity of delivery (reminiscent of Peter Pears) and an appealing bright timbre, with Bostridge stretched to his limits in its stratospheric lines. Beneath him aggressively plucked strings seemed to echo the poet’s rage. There were poignant moments too in a luminous passage for string quartet and solo trumpet in When you see millions of the mouthless dead and flickers of hope and reconciliation from quiet sustained strings and atmospheric humming brought the final movement Germany to a numbed yet contemplative close.

Its eerie calm leant an even greater force to the opening bite of Shostakovich’s Symphony no. 4 in C minor, a work from 1936 of such uncompromising greyness which prompted the composer to withhold its première for 25 years. In this compelling performance, Gianandrea Noseda was an invigorating champion, barely pausing between the movements to fashion a 70-minute account of blistering power, both savage and satirical, its sudden mood changes and false smiles grotesquely illuminated. The opening movement was hard driven with a string fugato taken at a homicidal tempo, two timpanists compounding its hysteria. Chilling violas, demonic woodwinds and apocalyptic horns brought menace to the second movement and the Finale’s bleak journey to world-weary triumph, closed with violins and ghostly celesta evoking Siberian desolation. Soloists throughout were outstanding, as was Noseda’s deft negotiation of mood and tempo changes that shaped a cogent and spellbinding performance. His only flaw, it might be argued, was to erase the memory of the MacMillan.

****1