To celebrate Commonwealth Day, a huge countdown clock to the Commonwealth Games was switched on in Glasgow Central Station. A little further down the road at the City Halls, the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra celebrated with a fascinating programme of dark storytelling from Scottish composers in a concert conducted by James MacMillan, as part of a series celebrating the Commonwealth. We were taken on a journey from a ghostly doomed and crewless ship to an astonishing requiem for a murdered woman.

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

 Hamish MacCunn was the son of a ship owner, so the traditional ballad The Demon Lover, a terrible tale where a sailor returns after seven years to find his former fiancée now married to a carpenter and with child, must have appealed to his nautical upbringing. The orchestral ballad The Ship O’ The Fiend was written when MacCunn was only twenty, and while there was plenty of lyrical music, this was a battle between good and evil. Horn and oboe solos gave way to sunny string themes from the cellos and violas, and soon we were gently rolling on a bright sea. The story goes that the sailor lured the carpenter’s wife onto his boat and, once at sea, she spotted his cloven hooves, for he was the devil. The music turned more urgent, the horn and oboe more sinister, before a march erupted after which the devil split the boat and a great blaze from the trombones and the whole orchestra sent them both straight to Hell.

Scottish composer Erik Chisholm was famous for conducting the UK premières of Les Troyens and Idomeneo in Glasgow, as well as inviting Bartók and Hindemith to Scotland. He was sent to India during the Second World War as a musical director to the South East Asia Command, where he formed a multiracial orchestra. After his appointment as Professor of Music at the University of Cape Town, he composed his Piano Concerto no. 2 “Hindustani” which sets traditional raga scales alongside western idioms. The work is punctuated throughout with extended piano solos, but at other times required some deft dovetailing of motifs into the orchestra. In the first movement, the music was urgent with chromatics, yet held a strangely western balance without the availability of quarter tones. Pianist Danny Driver clearly relished the chance to perform this unusual and neglected work with a brilliant performance of insistent, continually flowing notes. As the movement built to a particularly stormy section, Driver actually lifted off his seat at times as his fingers danced right round the keyboard, before a calmer interlude and beautiful solo clarinet brought a more reflective mood. The second movement was a series of variations on Rag Shri, associated with calming and early evening. Driver’s left hand played undulating figures, while his right took on Chisholm’s notated raga improvisations. Other variations were more boisterous, but a particular highlight was the cellos holding a theme emerging from the orchestra and the delicate brush touch of a gong to end. Finally, the Raga Vasantee was a particularly lively celebration of the coming of spring, starting with spiky, bird-like phrases on the piano before developing into a carnival-like riot, with phrases thrillingly hurtled round by the orchestra players and soloist.

A composition from  Alasdair Spratt titled Obsess followed, for a small ensemble of string quartet, double bass, harp, woodwind and percussion. As the composer explained, the piece was concerned with self-questioning, being jerky and pernickety with “events” sparking off other “events”. In a piece full of energy and tension, two violins battled with each other over a growly bass clarinet, double bassoon and marimba. There were moments of calm, but it was generally full of unresolved anxiety.

James MacMillan and the BBC Scottish wowed the Proms with The Confession of Isobel Gowdie, so there was much anticipation to have the same forces back in Glasgow 24 years later. MacMillan explained that he might have made an opera out of the brutal story of Isobel Gowdie, burned as a witch by the mob in 1662, but he ended up writing the Requiem for her that she never had. He said that he took Scottish musical idioms of drones, voices and pibroch and smudged them into music that captured her spirit. Starting from a quiet mesmeric melding and unmelding of semitones, the strings hypnotically built to a passionate climax. MacMillan faced the lower strings, urging on the individual violas (sensibly placed at the front of the platform) then the cellos and finally bringing in the violins with a flick of his left hand. Muted trombones heralded more urgent themes, underpinned by spidery, sinister scrabbling double basses bouncing their strings off their fretboards. The percussionists were kept busy throughout, particularly with two sets of tom-toms either side of the stage, but the power of the piece was awesome at times, with a series of massive chords in the central section underlining the composer’s deep feelings of anger over the injustice and brutality of the witch-hunts. The work ended on a single note, starting softly, and as all the instruments joined in, it rose to an ear-splitting blast.

There is always something special when a piece is performed in the presence of a composer, and even more so when the composer conducts a famous and popular work. James MacMillan, conducting the BBCSSO in The Confession of Isobel Gowdie, was an event in itself, and the sustained applause at the end proved the work was as powerful and exciting as ever.

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