In a musical tour around Great Britain, the dramatic focus was centred on Wales and Scotland, with James MacMillian’s Three Interludes from The Sacrifice: and The Confession of Isobel Gowdie opening and closing the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra’s concert at the Basingstoke Anvil. MacMillan himself conducted the evening, adding Walton’s Viola Concerto and Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis as the English contribution.

© Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra
© Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra

In a typical bit of Proms programming, MacMillan’s The Confession of Isobel Gowdie was slotted in between Sibelius and Beethoven in a 1990 Prom concert. Rather than the usual polite applause, the audience raised the roof in their appreciation. Two years later his percussion concerto, Veni, Veni Emmanuel, written for Evelyn Glennie, further marked MacMillan out as a composer of the highest rank. His threnody for Isobel Gowdie (or more accurately, I suggest, a coronach, the ancient Highland dirge form than can involved woman shrieking and wailing) is based on the appalling story of a Scottish woman who was strangled and burnt in pitch after her apparent confessions of what was considered to be witchcraft. James MacMillan is a devout Catholic and, despite laying the blame for the appalling persecution of women on the Reformation in his own programme note, clearly felt a very personal sense of empathy and ownership, describing this work as “the Requiem that Isobel Gowdie never had”. Since 1990, it has become more common for some world leaders to apologise for the wrongs of their forebears, and this intense, complex and frequently violent work is similarly intended to “crave absolution” on behalf of the Scottish people and to offer Isobel Gowdie “the mercy and humanity that was denied her in the last days of her life”. The work forms a huge arch, with the mysterious opening woodwind and string murmurs reappearing after an enormous crescendo that features a pair of drummers standing, Nielsen-like, on either side of the orchestra and a series of 13 massive staccato crashes from the full orchestra. After a moment of apparent resolution, the work ends with an extraordinary long held single note, starting sotto voce, but building up to a massive fffff screech of pain. The often primal outpourings were delivered brilliantly by the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra players.

The Sacrifice is MacMillan’s second opera and was premiered in 2007 by Welsh National Opera. It is based on one of the ancient Mabinogion Welsh myths of love set amid clan strife. Three of the orchestral interludes from the opera have been collected together to form this concert suite, the three movements representing The Parting (of the lovers before the marriage of one of them to a clan enemy), Passacaglia (reflecting the wedding that ends in violence) and The Investiture, ending in murder. MacMillan’s imaginate use of orchestral colour was to the for in this work, notably in the Passacaglia which builds from the initial plucked double basses to a climax from the full brass. The investiture develops over a sinister steady beat, ending in three orchestral crashes.

These two emotional intense works were balanced by the equally powerful English contributions of Vaughan Williams’ lush take on Tallis and Walton’s Viola Concerto, with Lawrence Power getting to the heart of this powerful and often disquietening work, standing aside to allow the orchestra to release its immense power. MacMillan emphasised the intensity of both works, bring out the inherent power in the Tallis work removing it from Lark Ascending tweeness.

For those who manage to see this review quickly enough, one of the other two performances of this concert is being broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on Tuesday 29 March at 7pm and for a while afterwards on BBC iPlayer.